The attempted lynching of Solomon Northup is one of the most difficult scenes to watch in Steve McQueen’s haunting film ’12 Years a Slave’. The scene is deliberately intense in the way it is constructed with regard to its visual elements, the representative time span it covers as well as the way the different shots are edited together. In this post I want to analyze how, specifically, the intensity is cinematically produced and what effect this has on the viewer.
The attempted lynching scene occurs towards the middle of the film when Solomon, the main character, is still held by the relatively benevolent Master Ford. Ford’s carpenter Tibeats, on the other hand, is a vile man who clearly indulges in antagonising and dehumanising the slaves. Tibeats clearly sees a threat in Solomon and provokes him into a fight in which Tibeats gets beaten and cowardly runs away. Tibeats returns to the plantation with two henchmen in order to lynch Solomon. They tie a noose around Solomon’s neck and hang him from a nearby tree. One of Ford’s more loyal overseers armed with a pistol intervenes by chasing away Tibeats and his cronies. Rather than saving Solomon’s life as an act of kindness, however, the overseer merely seeks to protect the value of the slave and the debt owed to Master Ford. Relating Solomon to a debt that is owed to his master is yet another brutal indication that the slave was equal to an exchangeable commodity whose life was worth not more than the money that was paid for him.
The scene takes a dramatic turn when Ford’s overseer turns and walks away from Solomon who is still hanging from the tree while his feet are barely touching the muddy ground. The noose remains tight on Solomon’s neck as he struggles to breathe and stand on the slippery surface. Accustomed to the temporal pacing and rhythm of Hollywood Cinema, at this stage of the film the viewer expects the scene to quickly cut into the next part of the plot that would bring Solomon’s fate to a dramatic conclusion: he either gets rescued or he dies. Yet this being a Steve McQueeen film, the scene does not cut into the next part of the film, but rather, the camera remains on Solomon as he continues to struggle for his life.
Long and visually intense takes are a signature characteristic in Steve McQueen’s films. In his first feature film ‘Hunger’ 2006, for instance, McQueen applied a purposefully long tracking shot that showed a prison guard scrubbing the floor after an inmate’s so-called ‘dirty protest’ (I have written about the intensity and the visual effectiveness of such cinematography in my post The Hypnotic Tracking Shot). Also used in many of McQueen’s video artworks, the long take deliberately suspends the viewer into a viewing experience that stands in contrast to dramatic twists in traditional Hollywood cinema. The long take, far more common in art house cinema, also has the effect that it allows the viewer to recognize himself in relation to the film. In other words, rather ‘getting lost in the plot’, the viewer becomes increasingly aware of his role as a spectator. In most cases, this emphasis on a spectacle is pleasurable and that includes the visually arresting scene in ‘Hunger’. Yet in ’12 Years a Slave’, McQueen applies the same methodology to a scene that depicts human suffering and agony. The camera remaining on Solomon as he is struggling for air creates discomfort, anxiety, perhaps even physical repulsion. It is a scene that quite understandably would provoke some viewers to leave the movie theatre.
The deliberateness with which this scene was made has the effect that each shot can be analyzed like a still photograph. The main shot depicts Solomon hanging from the tree as his body is suspended between life and death. The dichotomy between life and death is further emphasized by a newly built barn to the left and old barns to the right of the image while Solomon’s body hangs in between the two. The sustained act of suspension not only signifies Solomon’s position between life and death, it also hints at the slave in more general terms whose life is legally suspended as he has no legal rights that protect him. Here, Solomon’s suspended condition metaphorically relates to all slaves whose life removed from the law is akin to what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben called a ‘state of exception’. Removed of all legal right to live, or die, the long take depicting Solomon’s body hanging from the tree is briefly interrupted when another female slave feeds him some water while she is unable to free him for fear of reprisal.
Yet another twist in this epic scene occurs when, in the background to the shot, other slaves on the plantation assume their daily routines: women hang up the laundry, men fulfil various tasks while, most poignantly, a group of kids play in eyeshot of Solomon hanging from the tree. This element of the scene which juxtaposes Solomon’s struggle with the daily routine of being a slave emphasizes the normality, even banality, of capital punishment on the plantation. Shot from various angles, here Solomon’s body increasingly becomes another element in the landscape amongst the luscious trees and foliage of the state of Louisiana. Inasmuch his body is part of the visual landscape of the plantation, torture and death, as the scene suggests, is a routine element of the slaves’ psychological landscape. The scene finally ends when Master Ford cuts the rope as the sun has already set. The darkness of the night signifies that there is worse to come for Solomon.
The scene provokes the question what exactly is so traumatic and horrific in this part of the film. This question seems particularly pertinent considering that a large proportion of Hollywood films would easily exceed the levels violence depicted in ’12 Years a Slave’. Is it the physical violence against the slave? Or is it more specifically the representation of a violence that became normalized for those who exerted it as well as those totally exposed to it? Far from simply reverting to an art house cinema for aesthetic reasons, McQueen actively uses the long take to confront the viewer with a reality that must not be forgotten.