(SPOILER ALERT: This piece discusses key plot points, including the ending, from “12 Years a Slave.”)
There may be no living filmmaker who foregrounds religious iconography as compulsively as Steve McQueen. His 2008 debut, “Hunger,” was a prison drama staged as a 20th-century passion play, with Michael Fassbender enduring a crucible of martyrdom as the Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands; the man’s heroic asceticism was matched by the film’s formal austerity. In the role of an insatiable sex addict in “Shame,” Fassbender subjected himself to a different form of bodily imprisonment, enacting a spectacle of ritual self-abuse that climaxed with its own bloody evocation of the Pieta.
The Catholicism of “Hunger” and “Shame” — evident even in their blunt, punitive titles — is at once implicit and explicit, present in imagery as well as subtext. Its presence is firmly rooted in the characters’ Irish background, but it is also imposed from without by McQueen himself, a Turner Prize-winning visual artist with a gift for abstracting scenes of physical and psychological extremity into vivid tableaux of human suffering.
His films are not, to put it mildly, easy to watch. But they wouldn’t resonate as strongly as they do if he were not also interested, like so many great religious artists before him, in that elusive and extraordinary state we call grace. McQueen is no sadist. His gaze can be clinical and fetishistic, but what he scrutinizes stirs our compassion and, at its best, elicits our awe. And that applies even to the pained and beautiful landscape of “12 Years a Slave,” his third and most celebrated feature, which has been described by its many admirers and few detractors as a near-relentless immersion in unfathomable brutality — a characterization that strikes me as entirely appropriate even as it slightly misses the mark.
For one thing, McQueen’s assault is as intellectual as it is visceral. An expansive chronicle of American slavery artfully folded into a story of individual survival, “12 Years a Slave” means for us to feel in our bones the back-breaking, soul-crushing horror of slavery from the perspective of those who endured it. But even as it collapses the historical distance between us and its characters, the film wants us to understand, in a distanced, analytical way, the terrible banality of the Old South’s capitalist machinery and the various racist pathologies that flourished in its wake. And one of McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley’s most penetrating insights is that Christianity played a crucial role in keeping those pathologies alive.
I first saw “12 Years a Slave” at an early screening hosted by Reel Spirituality, a Fuller Seminary program designed to foster intelligent dialogue about contemporary cinema among people of faith, and in that context I may well have watched the movie with heightened sensitivity to even the slightest intrusion of spiritual commentary. Even allowing for that bias, McQueen’s film strikes me as his boldest, thorniest essay yet on the uses and abuses of religion, and the neverending human struggle to reconcile the coexistence of the sacred and the infernal on this earthly plane.
The sad irony that the antebellum South was a deeply God-fearing place is never once lost on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he finds himself at the mercy of two very different slavemasters, neither of whom sees any contradiction in using the Bible to justify the peculiar institution to which he belongs. Jonathan Merritt, the faith and culture writer for Religion News Service, has done an excellent job of laying out the various biblical references invoked throughout the film. The ruthless plantation owner Edwin Epps reads a snippet from the book of Luke to his slaves, specifically the command that the disobedient servant “shall be beaten with many stripes.” He attributes a bad harvest to an Old Testament-style plague for which he blames his slaves, even sending them away for a season until his crops once again find God’s favor.
Not just deluded but morally diseased, Epps is plainly a monster — and, as played by Fassbender, a dangerously charismatic one. But as the film makes clear, one needn’t have been a monster to be a casual enforcer of the system. Even the far more humane William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) employs Scripture to keep his charges in line, though his sermons ring especially hollow when drowned out by the tortured wails of Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a slave recently separated from her two young children. Words, as wielded by slaveowners and auctioneers, can be used to threaten, intimidate, cajole and deceive, but suffering speaks louder than words in McQueen’s cinema, and with far greater authority. If the silver-tongued white men here twist their faith to their advantage — with the important exception of Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), the Canadian abolitionist who proves instrumental in securing Northup’s freedom — the black men, women and children onscreen manage a quieter, more truthful experience of God in the midst of their daily struggle.
Over the course of his long imprisonment, Northup is beaten, terrorized and — here’s the audacious part — slowly, quietly exalted. McQueen shows how grace intrudes in the darkest of situations. It’s there when Northup joins his fellow slaves in the singing of a spiritual, a moment in which despair and anguish commingle with a profound sense of surrender and acceptance. It’s there in the agonizingly extended long shot of Northup dangling from a tree, struggling for a muddy foothold as a rope threatens to choke the life out of him — a sequence that, in its extended duration and unflinching cruelty, cannot help but evoke the Crucifixion. And it’s there even in the film’s most horrific sequence, in which Northup is made to whip Epps’ prized slave girl (Lupita Nyong’o) and becomes a sort of inverted Christ figure, forced not to bear another person’s punishment but rather to mete it out.
“Sin? There is no sin,” Epps says when confronted with his actions. “A man does what he wishes with his property.” His self-absolution is at once echoed and rebuked by the five words that close the film, when Northup, reunited at long last with his family, begs their forgiveness for his long absence: “There is nothing to forgive.” The true implication of that statement may not sink in until after you have left the theater and pondered the reality of the debt collectively owed to this man and the millions of other victims he represents. But for one piercing moment, those five words descend upon us, as surely as they do upon Solomon Northup, with the clarity and compassion of a benediction.