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Scene of the Year: The Torturous Moments of ’12 Years a Slave’

By  · Published on December 18th, 2013

Scene of 2013

Far more movies than any one person can watch get produced and released every year. That’s why film fans get so anal retentive and self-important when they’re trying to decide what they’re going to declare their favorite film of the year. When you take movies as seriously as people like us do, year-end ratings and rankings can get pretty stressful. So just imagine how much harder it is to try to narrow down every scene that gets shot for every movie each year to one, definitive, best scene of the year. It’s enough to produce a healthy layer of flop sweat.

Last year it was an accordion interlude, but this year we’re naming two scenes as our Scene of the Year because of how closely they work in tandem with one another. They’re also about the furthest from last year’s winner as you can get.

Without further ado, the FSR staff has chosen The Hanging Scene and The Whipping Scene from director Steve McQueen’s affecting historical drama 12 Years a Slave as the Scene(s) of 2013.

Given all of the movie scenes that get shot every year, a scene has to stand out quite a bit to be worthy of being called the absolute best. It can’t just be the scene that works as the high point of the movie it came from, or even the scene that served to tie the picture together as a whole, it has to be the sort of thing that one could watch pulled out of context of the film that exists around it and still have it work as an affecting piece of art. It has to stand out and strike you so much that it’s still going to be burned in your brain ten years from now – so much so that when someone brings it up, you’ll be instantly transported back to the time and place in which you first experienced it.

12 Years a Slave is one of the rare art films that’s tackling a subject that’s so important and is still such a hot button issue in our society that mainstream audiences are actually compelled to go out and give it a try. When they do they’re not only seeing a film that’s full of great performances from great actors, and they’re not only seeing a film that’s beautiful to look at due to the artistic eye of its director; they’re also putting themselves through a harrowing filmgoing experience that’s likely to stab at their hearts, churn up their guts, and have them leaving the theater feeling far more emotionally connected to the traumas of slavery than any history class could manage. Two of the main reasons 12 Years a Slave is able to affect everyone this way are its hanging scene and its whipping scene, which both work as horrifying high points for the film that are amazing in no good way.

The Hanging Scene comes after the free man who has been kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), gets pushed too far by a particularly slimy slave master played by Paul Dano and attacks him. The attack results in Solomon being physically abused and hung from a tree, so that the noose around his neck is always actively choking him, but also so his toes can touch the muddy earth below him just enough to keep him from being strangled entirely. The scene is mercilessly long and uncomfortable to watch, and it hits audiences so much harder than anything else that’s been in theaters this year for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is simply Ejiofor’s face, and how clearly and easily pain travels across it. Ejiofor is an expressive performer who can do far more with a look than he can with a written line, so he’s basically the perfect actor to internalize all the traumas that Northup is forced to experience and to reflect them at the audience in a way they can empathize with. It’s impossible to watch this man in peril – in such great pain – and not feel some portion of what he’s going through yourself.

The second reason The Hanging Scene is able to affect audiences so thoroughly is McQueen’s direction and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography. What they do with it – or more accurately what they don’t.

At this point in his young career as a filmmaker McQueen has probably become best known for his long takes, where he lingers on a subject for a lengthy period of time without moving or cutting away. In Hunger the showoff long take involved a conversation between two men at a table, and in Shame the focus was put on a musical performance delivered by Carey Mulligan. Going into 12 Years a Slave, talk about the boldness of McQueen’s long takes had dominated discussion of his films so thoroughly that it seemed like he was probably in danger of being labeled a one trick pony if he kept on using them – but then he went and did it again, and it ended up being the best thing he’s produced yet.

The thing that makes McQueen’s long takes so effective is that he knows when to use them, and he knows what to use them for. If you’re watching one of this guy’s movies and you notice that the camera has suddenly started sitting rock still, pay attention, because what he’s about to show you is going to be important. The effect of this particular technique in The Hanging Scene is that it stretches Ejiofor’s suffering out so long that eventually your focus drifts away from what he’s experiencing and it moves to what’s happening in the background.

As the scene goes on and McQueen refuses to let you look away, you start to realize that all of the other slaves have pretty quickly gotten over seeing Northup publicly tortured and strung up, and they’ve gone back about their business. Work starts back up, kids slip effortlessly back into their playing, and the realization hits you right in the gut how commonplace excruciating experiences like this must have been to those who lived their lives subjugated by American slavery, and how thoroughly they must have been separated from their own sense of humanity.

As a terrible companion, The Whipping Scene, where Northup is forced by his cruelest master (Michael Fassbender) to repeatedly lash a female slave who he has an emotional attachment to, uses the act of committing violence as the punishment. While The Hanging Scene reveals to us in visceral fashion how thoroughly a slave state can separate a person from their humanity, The Whipping Scene attacks us with humanity and forces us to feel the full gamut of emotions that come along with human suffering. There’s a shame that necessarily stems from living in a country that allowed the slave trade to take place, even this many generations removed from it. Watching the slave girl played by Lupita Nyong’o shriek and sob as her back is torn to shreds by the whip, and watching the powerless attacker Ejiofor experience absolute horror as he faces a raw theft of his free will, rubs our noses in that shame.

I saw 12 Years a Slave at a packed festival screening that didn’t have an empty seat in the house, and that rubbing of elbows really helped drive home just how powerfully these two scenes were affecting the audience as they watched them. Not only are they able to stir up emotion, but they go so far in their effectiveness to be able to take over people’s bodies and manipulate them physically.

As Northup was being hanged everyone shifted uncomfortably in their seats, nearly panicking because, unlike the characters in the background, the stillness of McQueen’s camera never allowed them to look away from the suffering that was on display. During The Whipping Scene people were physically turning their heads – and in some cases even their whole bodies – away from the screen, trying to escape the gore, brutality, and inhuman behavior that was right in front of them.

Maybe 12 Years a Slave has a bit of an unfair advantage when it comes to winning an award like Scene of the Year because its subject matter is so inherently powerful already, but it’s because of stunning execution and towering performances that these two film moments will stick with us more than any other this year.

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Writes about movies at Temple of Reviews and Film School Rejects. Complains a lot.