Towering profiles of moss-hung oaks, silhouetted against languid Southern sunsets, form some of the indelible images from Steve McQueen’s new film. So too do gruesome close-ups of the scarred backs of antebellum slaves, whose skin has hardened to bark by years of whippings. This is the central visual paradox in 12 Years a Slave, which contrasts quiet moments of primeval, pastoral beauty with the loud, primitive violence practiced by plantation owners.
This is not an easy film to watch, and not simply for its graphic mayhem. The conversational racism of the slavers and the shrugging acceptance of the “peculiar institution” by the story’s more enlightened figures suggest a moral bankruptcy that only the coming Civil War could overcome. That realization will put many white viewers on the spot: It’s an easy thing to boo a tyranny from the safe distance of 170 years, but how do we respond toward more contemporary evils – evils that some may take for granted?