Monday, March 3, 2014
"12 Years a Slave," at once McQueen's most ambitious and most conventional movie, is even more suggestive in its use of architecture. Fassbender is back as a brutish Southerner, but the film rarely leaves Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northup as he is lured from freedom in New York state and sold into slavery in Washington, D.C.
Beginning with an early shot that pans up from Northup's face and through dozens of layers of bricks before ending with a shot of the Washington skyline — he is in for it, that scene says — the movie takes up architectural symbols in a sustained and strategic way.
This is most obviously true in the way the porches of the slave owners' houses tower over Northup like looming Parthenons of white privilege. It is most persuasively true of the pair of structures that Northup helps to build and that become a visual way to track his slow path back to freedom.
First comes a slave shack that he works to frame and that stands in the background, roofless, as he hangs from a tree after barely surviving a lynching attempt. Next is what turns out to be a gazebo on the grounds of a second plantation. The gazebo is roofless as well for scene after scene, until Northup meets and tells his story to a sympathetic abolitionist carpenter played by Brad Pitt.