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The stain of slavery on American history has seen many renderings on celluloid, from the misguided pro-South, silent 1915 masterpiece by D.W. Griffith, “Birth of a Nation” that embosses Klansmen in a heroic light, to Quentin Tarantino’s recent revisionist fantasy, “Django Unchained,” in which the Klan are little more than Keystone cops in hoodies and an emboldened slave, freed of shackles and armed, rains down wrath on skin-trading vermin. Both are cinematic achievements in their own right, but neither gets fully at the foul plight of rooting day-to-day under the duress of an overseer’s whip. Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” came close, but that sweeping epic took place centuries ago, long before the pilgrims hit the shores of Massachusetts and our European forefathers began an unwritten policy of treating people of nonwhite pigmentation like pests and livestock.

102513i 12 Years a SlaveThe good (or grim, as it may be) news is that director Steve McQueen, who is black, British and an auteur of recent reckoning, goes at the matter in “12 Years a Slave” in a fashion that gets under the viewer’s skin in unexpected ways. It’s uncomfortable and telling. What McQueen achieves is a visceral experience that, while not a history lesson in the factual sense, becomes the de facto moral rendering of an era that should be recalled only with remorse and shame.

Ironic too, as McQueen’s last movie bore that same notorious branding. “Shame” plumbed the torment of a sex addict trying to come to terms with himself. In “Slave,” Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in antebellum upstate New York, too is a tormented soul, but his torments are not self-inflicted. Not in the least. They come at the hands of amoral slave traders and sadistic, bourbon-soaked plantation owners bearing jealousy and a cat-o’-nine-tails.

How did a free man in the abolitionist North come to be a slave? Northup’s ordeal really happened, though the film based on his 1853 memoir plays loose with the circumstance that delivered him into slavery. We come quickly to understand he’s an educated man, a talented violin player, has a family and is revered among black and white in his community. We hardly get all this when he’s introduced to two traveling performers who want to recruit him for a well-paid, short-term gig in D.C. After a handshake we see Northup with the two men dining and drinking liberally in a fine establishment. It’s the last time Northup’s face bears a smile. Next, he’s throwing up in an alley, then waking up in chains in a dungeon right out of a cheap horror flick. It’s a very bad hangover indeed.

It’s here too that McQueen makes his most stinging social observation, as the camera pans slowly up and out through the grating of the cell and over a brick wall to reveal the Capitol in the tantalizing near distance: So much injustice, so close to a bastion of justice.

While questions of Northup’s incarceration persist (Who are these guys, what drives them and how could Northup be so naive?), the film delves into the existence of the slave as Northup and others are boarded covertly onto a boat and shipped to Louisiana, where they are sold off (Paul Giamatti playing the head slave trader). Northup, given the name Platt, learns quickly that to appear educated or protest his incarceration means only a lashing. Then it becomes a matter of sheer survival. He tells one grieving woman, ostensibly once free herself and separated at auction from her son and daughter, that she needs to get over it and save her own skin for as long as she can. His cruel words are just about the kindest act that occurs on a plantation. Northup is initially sold to a benevolent owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who allows Platt to engineer the fording of lumber down the bayou to make the harvesting process more efficient (like the British prisoners in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”), enraging the short-fused overseer (Paul Dano, really coming into his own) and leads to his near hanging.

Platt’s next passed on to a drunken cotton plantation owner (Michael Fassbender, who starred in each of McQueen’s previous features) who regularly beats slaves so gruesomely it’s vomit- and tear-inducing and takes his pleasure freely with young slave women, much to the protest of his equally turbulent wife (Sarah Paulson). In short, it’s a hell where abuse comes from all angles and there is no right or safe path to stick to. All one can do is endure.

How the ordeal comes to term is somewhat redeeming, but not just. If you’ve ever seen “Amistad” and recall the disturbing scene where slaves shackled to each other, some weak, some hale and some dead, are dumped into the ocean, where they all go down in a daisy chain of certain death, that’s the type of grim inhumanity that fills the middle third of “Slave.” And as a viewer you can’t escape the oppressive torment of the bayou’s humidity and bugs, which McQueen serves up as a sensual feast akin to a gauzy Terrence Malick immersion. It gnaws at you the way this American tragedy does as relayed through one man’s eyes (Ejiofor, more than Oscar worthy).

The power of “Slave” is not so much its rote plea to “not forget,” but its invitation to understand.

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Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Film Threat and Open Windows. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.

 

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