There are many possible answers to these questions, but I tend to think that opening segment forecasts the film's primary patterns. The story is similar enough to other tales of American slavery that we don't need any training in understanding it, but the style and conventions of the film are not as familiar, and we do need to get accustomed to those.
Consider, for instance, how the opening segment helps us understand a potentially perplexing shot at the end of the movie. Solomon has finally managed to get someone to take a letter from him to the post office, but he does not know whether he can trust the person. Solomon looks out at the landscape. The camera stays on his face for an extraordinary amount of time. From the very beginning of the film, Solomon has been trying to get word out to his family or anyone else who might be able to help him. In this film, the relationship between shots can be associational rather than strictly linear or expository, especially concerning Solomon's attempts to communicate to the free world. His desire, his yearning for freedom, shifts the representation of time. Like Solomon, we, too, are bewildered: what is happening, what is going on in the world beyond? Time freezes. We stare.
The next shots show us that the gazebo Solomon had begun working on at the time he wrote his letter is now completed. Time speeds forward.
Similarly, a refusal to cut a shot at the point anyone conditioned by mainstream films would expect provides one of the most powerful moments in the movie — indeed, it is among the most remarkable scenes of any film I know. After Solomon attacks one of the white men who has been tormenting him, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Tibeats returns with a friend and tries to lynch the impertinent slave. He is halted by the general overseer of the plantation, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), but Chapin does not then cut Solomon down. Instead, he says they'll have to wait for the plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), to return that night. And so Solomon remains, his hands tied behind his back, his toes barely touching the ground, his throat roped to a tree branch. The shot goes on and on. Solomon gasps and straining to keep himself from strangling to death. Once, a slave sneaks to him with a small cup of water.
The extraordinary, excruciating length of the scene forces us to confront the physical reality of slavery to an extent unparalleled by any other film. The audience becomes a body of witnesses. Here, no soaring John Williams-style music plays our heartstrings, no character later offers moral exposition. A man swings from a rope and tries to stay alive. We watch. It is all the film allows us to do.
Yet, if the film's power and importance come from its careful construction of the audience as witness, what sort of witnesses are we, and of what use is our witnessing?
These questions are hardly unique to 12 Years a Slave — they apply to some extent, at least, to any film with serious intentions of recreating and representing historical atrocities. Toward an answer, all I can offer is a hypothesis: what matters is not the recreation, but the quality of witness, and the quality of humanity, it requires of us.
There is already a tremendous amount of Oscar buzz around 12 Years a Slave, which more than one critic has dubbed "the Schindler's List of slavery movies". In the sense of carefully recreating a particular life from one of the great horrors of history, and generating strong emotions in audiences, this is true. But the Oscar talk gives a false impression of what McQueen's film is up to.
Even in his most serious and self-consciously "artistic" films, Steven Spielberg is a Hollywood director to the core, a genius of audience manipulation. McQueen is no more Spielberg than Spielberg is Michael Haneke. The kind of historical dramas and social justice dramas that win Oscars flatter their more privileged and powerful audiences, allowing — even encouraging — such audiences to feel good about themselves. The same choices that propelled Roots to extraordinary popularity are the sorts of choices approved and awarded by the Oscarati. They are also the choices that Steve McQueen and his collaborators carefully and determinedly renounce.
And yet I would not be at all surprised to see 12 Years a Slave sweep the Oscars--mostly because McQueen brilliantly chose to apply his particular aesthetic to material that is deeply appealing to Oscar voters. Northup's original book, edited and perhaps ghostwritten for him by the white lawyer and writer David Wilson, had to be aimed at a primarily white audience, for, like any other slave narrative popularized through abolitionist circles, it had a particular propagandistic purpose. An advertisement for the book in the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator included numerous quotations from reviews that testified to the book's ability to confirm the horror of slavery for an audience that previously might have dismissed Uncle Tom's Cabin and other novels as fictional exaggerations. One reviewer, for the Cayuga Chief, highlighted the qualities of the book which McQueen's film emulates: "It is well told, and bears internal evidence of being a clear statement of facts. There is no attempt at display, but the events are so graphically portrayed, that the interest in the perusal is deep and unabated to the last. The sunshine of kind treatment sheds a few bright beams athwart the dark canvass of twelve years of bondage: but, in the main, the darker cruelty and wickedness of oppression is still more revolting by the contrast."
There we have, too, the key to why characters like William Ford and Bass (the man who ultimately delivered the letter that would begin the process toward Northup's freedom, here played by Brad Pitt) are important to the story. They are not there to appease white sensibilities, but rather are placed in the film in proportion to their presence in Northup's actual life, and they highlight the oppressiveness and irredeemability of any system where people are considered property.
Further, audiences have very little chance to sympathize with good white characters, because they simply have too little screen time. This is as it should be. Our sympathies and identification should be with the slaves.
If the work of traditional, white-audience slave movies is to encourage us to look for good white people to identify with, and to make us witnesses to narratives in which there are good white people in even the most hellish circumstances, then 12 Years a Slave works to undo that. 12 Years a Slave deprives us of the familiar pathways to identification with white saviors, and instead requires us to identify with the people we should have been identifying with in the first place.
Matthew Cheney's work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.