Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, which played at the New York Film Festival last week and comes to theaters on the 17th of October, is as extraordinary a film as most of its reviews claim it is. The acting and the direction are indeed remarkable, but I was also struck by John Ridley's script, the dialogue in which very convincingly simulates mid-19th-century modes of North American speech while augmenting the already-powerful narrative with extremely trenchant philosophical and psychological observations, pronouncements, and maxims. The implications of these words, particularly within their contexts, are extraordinary, and it's to the credit of Ridley (an extremely able writer whose prior work as I've experienced it has been notably smart but never acheived precisely this level of depth), McQueen and the extraordinary cast that the nuggets of disquieting added value never play as contrived or forced. I record nine of them below, with descriptions that I hope are sufficiently discreet so as not to constitute "spoilers;" nevertheless, some readers may prefer to look at this piece after they have seen the movie themselves.
It's worth noting that there is not a whole lot of recorded dialogue in the first four-fifths or so of the Solomon Northup memoir on which the movie is based. What dialogue is taken from the book is, as it happens, lifted almost verbatim. Of the nine bits of dialogue examined below, two derive directly from the book, and it's a testament to Ridley's sensitivity and inventiveness that he makes his dialogue not just out of such speech that's recorded in the book, but out of certain particular emotional articulations put down by the memoirist.
1) "The reality to come is that we will be transported Southward."
Shortly after free man of color Northup is hoodwinked into entering a slave state and subsequently drugged and kidnapped, he waits anxiously in a cell with a two other black men who have arrived at a similar circumstance. They both speak to him with an articulate resignation, because they know what's going on, to the extent that as soon as their brutal white handlers enter the room they put on the masks of shambling half-idiots. Northup expresses absolute incredulity at his plight and wonders aloud as to how he might be able to correct what he believes to have been a mistake. The line above, in which the phrase "the reality to come" has a particular resonance in its resignation, is spoken to Northup in a devastating fatalistic tone by the actor Chris Chalk, in the role of Clemens.
2) "You luxuriate in his favor. I survive."
Also in Northup's party traveling from Virginia to Louisiana to be sold is Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a woman who is subsequently mercilessly separated from her two children and sold with Northup to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), an ostensibly "humane" master who nevertheless employs a brutal overseer played by Paul Dano. After the educated and worldly Northup, while continuing to conceal his identity (on arriving in Louisiana he is commanded to take the name "Platt"), impresses Ford with his engineering acumen, he is treated in a fashion that makes his station somewhat more tolerable, while Eliza, heartbroken over the loss of her children, literally cannot stop crying. She directs the above accusation to Northup after he (very gently) upbraids her about her behavior, which he fears will bring her into disfavor, single her out for punishment.
Not to trivialize the situation of the people depicted in the motion picture, but luxuriating in the favor of an individual or corporate entity very much remains a condition pertaining to employment to this day.
3) "Whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt. But I fear no good will come of it."
Because of some confusion in my notes, I initially wrote, "This is spoken to Northup/Platt by Epps (Michael Fassbender), the 'nigger breaker' to whom Ford sells Platt. Epps' 'fear,' obviously, is for Platt rather than for himself. Or is it? As cut and dried as the master/slave relationship might seem, this line implies hierarchies within it that subsequent events lay out most discomfitingly." As it happens, the line is actually spoken by Cumberbatch's seemingly kindly Ford, and is a reflection of the fact that his very exceptionalism has put him in a position where Dano's raging overseer has very nearly lynched him. The point of Cumberbatch's character, and something the actor plays with considerable resourcefulness, is that he is in no way redeemed by being a nice slave owner: he directly benefits from human misery, directly partakes in a system that allows him to do so. That he goes about this business with more gentleness and consideration than others does not change the fundamental fact of the matter. And like the song says, "isn't he a bit like you and me?" Or more than a bit, even. The movie is not blunt in showing the viewer his or her complicity in injustice, but it's very definite in doing so. It seems that many people deal with this by changing the subject to how well the movie ought to do in the Oscar race, which is pretty funny. Maybe.
4) "Nigger among niggers. God gave her to me."
This is Epps again, speaking of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the small, delicate but very hard-working (she consistently outpicks her fellows in the cotton field, and by huge margins) slave girl for whom Epps nurses a very deep erotic obsession, and obsession not unnoticed by Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson). His pride, his sense of possession, his torture over his attraction to her: Fassbender of course plays all this with absolute commitment. The character, also a very nasty drunk, is powerful, and powerfully repellent. In an interview with Film Comment, director McQueen observes "The funny thing is, I have a lot of sympathy for Epps because he's in love with Patsey." That's true, but it's also true that there is no possibility of any kind of fair exchange of emotion or understanding between them because of the absolute power Epps has over Patsey. One thing that's gone largely unremarked upon in the praise of this film is how mercilessly it lays bare the debased, depraved psychosexual pathology of slavery in the United States. Through patient demonstration, it argues quite coherently that the thing that destroyed black culture was white people. More than once watching 12 Years A Slave I recalled Susan Sontag's notorious 1967 pronouncement "the white race is the cancer of human history," a statement subsequently renounced by the writer. It is arguably a hyperbolic and rhetorically irresponsible statement. And yet I think it bears some examination with respect to this particular narrative. In any event, this may sound flip, but I defy anyone who sits through this movie to ever be able to comfortably listen to the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" again any time soon.
5) "The curse of the Pharoah is but a poor sample of what awaits the plantation class."
Alfre Woodard, playing a once-slave whose own amorous relations with a master have elevated her to a house mistress, makes this prediction in casual conversation with Northup/Platt. For what awaits the plantation class, see, of all things, Gone With The Wind, specifically the sequence depicting the burning of Atlanta. To see the lesson the great great grandchildren of the plantation class have learned from it, see...well, never mind.
6) "Did you beguile him, Platt? With your slick nigger ways?"
Once, many years ago at the Village Voice, the columnist Nat Hentoff, commenting on something he perceived as specious in a piece by Clayton Riley, characterized Riley, and/or his use of rhetoric, by evoking a "three-card monte dealer." This resulted, as I recall, in Hentoff sustaining a shitstorm of blowback in which he was accused of racism. This was absurd on the face of it, because, really, at the time there was no white man in the United States who had less reason to be tarred as a racist than Nat Hentoff, who, for instance, in 1960 produced Charles Mingus' "Original Faubus Fables," for Christ's sake. And also, you know, three-card monte was a real thing. (I rather wish it would come back: as a method of fleecing New York tourists, it's a hell of a lot more entertaining and even innocent than dressing in a bad Elmo costume and extorting tip money for snapshots.) Still (and—again, if I recollect correctly—Hentoff came to understand this), making the analogy in this case amounted to buying into/perpetuating a vicious racial myth, one that is articulated in the question Epps asks Northup/Platt after Platt returns from a sojourn serving a different master, one who procures for the slave a paying gig as a musician. You can hear the poison narrative of "slick nigger ways" retold by white America every day, and you don't even have to listen terribly hard.
7) "But beggin' the law's pardon—it lies."
This line is taken directly from the book, spoken by the Canadian-born carpenter Bass, played by Brad Pitt. It refers to the law that permits slavery. Some have commented that Pitt's character plays like some sort of deus ex machina. I would commend those people to the narrative from which the movie was adapted, which is eminently readable and pretty short. In any event, Bass' observation is terse and powerful.
8) "Sin? There is no sin. Man does as he pleases with his property."
There is a scene late in the picture in which Platt/Northup is compelled to perform an absolutely abhorrent act, at the insistence of Epps, upon a fellow slave. This, like almost every other event in the movie, is in Northup's narrative. In the book, Northup observes, "I could look on Epps only with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and thought within myself—‘Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!’” In the movie, Northup actually says a variant of this out loud, and with great emotion, to Epps, who, like everyone else in the story, deems himself a Christian. The above is what Epps answers in the movie, and it speaks strongly for itself.
9) "It would be an unspeakable happiness to see my wife and my family again."
This is what Northup says to Bass when he finally decides to confide in the kindly and moral carpenter. This is not rendered as dialogue in the book; rather, Northup writes, “I spoke of my wife and children, mentioning their names and ages, and dwelling upon the unspeakable happiness it would be to clasp them to my heart once more before I died.” The notion of "unspeakable happiness" is one well worth reflecting on.