Scene Sound Off: 12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is not an easy watch, but an essential one. One that rawly portrays the horrors of American slavery. There are so many scenes that are hard to watch, (most notably the excruciatingly violent whipping of Patsey) but there is another in particular that is quietly disturbing, and one of the most important visuals of the film.

We open with a wide shot of Solomon hanging by his neck, barley able to tiptoe. He is awaiting possible death, punishment for beating up a white superior. Fearing for his life, he struggles to stay alive. The camera does not let the audience look away for nearly 90 seconds. The slaves in the background go about their business. In the next shot we pull tighter as a kind slave gives him water, something she surely could’ve been punished for.

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There is a shot of the children playing, their sounds of laughter heightened. We know that the slaves are used to this kind of horror, but it is particularly effective to see that even the young children are immune to it as well. These children see this kind of torture and pain every day. It is a daily occurrence in their life and there’s no need to pay any attention to it.

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We see a shot of the mistress watching Solomon from atop her beautiful mansion as he dangles through the middle of the shot, the back of his head in a close-up.

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In the next shot, we are on the porch of the slave quarters. To the right a slave woman goes about her business, and you can barely see Solomon in the background, still hanging there. The shadows are growing longer, more and more time is passing.

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In the last shot, it is now evening. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit says, “What was very important is that the audience gets a sense of the passage of time, and sense the length of the shots, that feeling of the duration of the day as it goes through the heat of the day and drifts toward the evening.” Each shot in the scene has shown the daylight growing dimmer and dimmer. And now Solomon, once illuminated, is in shadow. After this lingering torture in the heat, as hours passed from day to evening, his fate is now coming.

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What is most striking about the scene is although it is difficult to watch, the setting and background is so utterly gorgeous. The beautiful Louisiana weeping willows against sprawling Victorian mansions, the constant murmur of the cicadas playing throughout the scene, it seems like a beautiful Southern summer day. It is hard to believe that someplace so beautiful held such horrors, such violence and pain in people’s lives.

The juxtaposition of the violence against the exquisite scenery reflects the passages from the book. Although this is taken from Patsey’s whipping scene, it is easy to see the inspiration for these shots in the book, “The fields smiled in the warm sunlight- the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees- peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere- save in the bosoms of Epps and his painting victim and the silence witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day.”

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This scene holds you and refuses to let you go. Editor Joe Walker says “The aim [of the scene] is that you’re left with this awkwardness and deeply uncomfortable viewing of that wide shot of him hanging … and held to the point where there’s no friendly cut. There’s no relief. We signal by holding the time that we do. It’s almost like fueling the audience’s subconscious that they are watching something real. There’s no safety net … there’s an element of enduring [something] real. You almost get the audience to a point where they want to stand up and make a scene, you know?”

You do want it to end. It is almost unbearable to have to sit through this. But that is what makes 12 Years A Slave so effective, emotional and important, it’s refusal to look away. So many films have alluded to or glossed over the true horrors of slavery. 12 Years A Slave puts everything in your face, demands you to take a look at the barbarity of America’s past, and makes no attempt to conceal what has been truly done. This was real. It happened. We need to acknowledge this, no more hiding.

To read more on my thoughts on the film, check out my review here.

See the scene below.

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