Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave may be unreviewable. Its power and emotional significance are beyond question. Its truthfulness makes it a near-living document. But what McQueen and his cast have achieved is nothing short of spectacular. They all have made not simply the definitive film on slavery, but perhaps the definitive film on the American character.There's a moment in Toni Morrison's <em>Beloved</em> where someone asks "What are these people? You tell me Jesus. What are they?" McQueen's film doesn't answer the question, but it makes it impossible to avoid weighing it in every frame.
Slavery was the most prolific and longstanding institution to define America. If you wish to start at the House of Burgesses you had best include the numberless rows of Slave Houses that served as home, sanctuary, rape-den, disease-pit, and alter, to the enslaved millions who could only laugh to scorn American "democracy." Chiwetel Ojiofor's Solomon Northrup is something to behold. His strength, vulnerability, and lived terror are all part of what cannot be described as acting. These actors are not acting - they are channeling. So something sacred is touched in the film and therefore it is not a thing to be reviewed. We must talk at the film. A word for our role as viewers has not been invented. There are tens of thousands on social media today rendered "speechless" by it. McQueen has induced the most sought after praise an artist can hope for. Silence. He has razed an American Duomo of Terror and we walk through its ruins silently lest we dishonor the dead. Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey is a sliver of genius in the film. Gorgeously poetic in her sorrow. Majestic in her dignity. Michael Fassbender is evil's banality personified. Did people live this way? Did they do these things to one another? For centuries.
The Holocaust Museum in Washington needs its long-neglected twin.
12 Years a Slave holds you even when you wish to be let go. There is Solomon Northrup dangling from a tree. He seems neither alive nor dead. He hovers in a tap dance tragic circle. We look away. There are black children playing. Terror is this place. Play and death are co-mingled. There is the screaming mother separated from her children. A violin plays over her piercing cries. We look away. But her sobs cut through the notes. We are deformed in our quest for solace. Finally, we, the audience realize -- we cannot look away. Every inch of screen, every frame offers no escape. We hope for flight and find ourselves in the midst of a wooded lynch mob. The period song "Run, Nigger, Run" haunts the film. It haunts America.
Bless the president. He has enormous tasks before him and few friends. But he needs to do away with talk of American exceptionalism. Before the opportunity to cleanse our historical memory of wigs and pilgrims and patriots and fathers and "Christian-foundings" is lost forever.
An unnamed slave gives the dangling Northrup water. The crucifixion is nearly over. We cannot look away. The film cannot be reviewed.
It is in a word, exceptional.
Saladin Ambar is the author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press) and teaches political science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. His book, Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era (Oxford University Press) will be released in February, 2014.