Throughout 12 Years a Slave, the fact-based account of how New York-bred freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped and sold into slavery on various Louisiana plantations, we’re led beyond the basic slave narrative of capture, torture, humiliation, sadness, and eventual release, and immersed into passing nature, art, and machinery in such a way that we’re forced to confront the ordinary everyday through a whole new prism: Solomon concentrating on the tuning of his violin before a performance, the instrument passing in jarring close-up, a form working out an uncertain sense of purpose and then speaking in music; a plate of food with a burst blackberry leaking juice, igniting an idea as the goo stains the surface; a steamboat sternwheel turning, the rhythmic motion of form upon fluid working to divorce it from a context; feet struggling to retain momentum on slippery mud, the body hanging from a noose above, time laboriously and indifferently passing as people go about daily tasks in the background; the clatter of chains amplified and playing like a dissonant music score over dark images of a man waking up to a nightmare; the cinders of burning paper swallowed by black night; the willows, the alien grass, the hum of onlooking but indifferent trees, and worms slowly crawling on dead cotton plants; and a close-up of Solomon’s face, years into his unjust sentence as a slave named “Platt,” held mutedly fixed for nearly a minute as the out-of-focus natural world behind him glistens like an inchoate landscape struggling for definition.
This isn’t merely a series of embellishments denoting distinctive authorial idiosyncrasies. Director Steve McQueen, a renowned visual artist before turning to feature films with 2008′s Hunger and 2011′s Shame, tells Solomon Northup’s story as the real world falling through an obscured multiplicity of abstractions, unveiling a plethora of new landscapes within a single object, be it steamboat, violin, tree, or plate of food. 12 Years a Slave feels less like a period film relating to important historical issues than a startling confrontation with the extraterrestrial landscape of the Past, a trait it shares with Stanley Kubrick’s similarly painterly Barry Lyndon. Like Barry Lyndon, the Past may feel more foreign than that to which we are accustomed, but it also carries exponentially more weight. It’s strange, but much more immediate–history made uncanny. The heaviness of the past when we think about the passing phenomena of sounds, images, and people in Solomon’s unfortunate adventure, is crushing as it is fleeting. The images sink in deep and hurt.