It takes approximately 10 – 20 minutes to die by hanging. A simple slip knot, placed to the right or left of the neck, is used to tighten the trachea causing a series of flashing lights, hissing, and ringing in the ears as blood flow to the brain is reduced, and the jugular vein and arteries are blocked. As darkness encroaches upon the soul, the loss of air causes unconsciousness. What follows are convulsions, with the body twitching in epileptic-like seizures. Until finally, the heart stops beating and rests in peace. If it’s a long, short, or standard drop hanging, where a platform is used, removed, and the body is allowed to fall 4-6 feet; instant death happens when the neck breaks, or on some occasions, the head pops off. But in the most inhumane form of asphyxia, referred to as suspension hanging, a body is strapped up, sometimes dangling from a tree, without a platform. And death is allowed to come slowly, methodically, in an excruciating, disturbing way.
No one will ever know how many slaves died by hanging. And it’s unimaginable to believe that anyone could have survived. But in director Steve McQueen’s epic classic, 12 Years a Slave, one will walk to the light. Remember his name: Solomon Northup, a free man, who after being kidnapped from the North and sold to the South, is forced into brutal bondage. He maintains his strength, faith, and sanity, by plotting an escape and returning to his wife and children. In the film, based off Northup’s 1853 memoir documenting his nightmare come true, McQueen does an illustrious job of depicting the dark pages of Northup’s book. Standout moments show how losing control of his black man rage, resulted in typical slave repercussions in the form of a noose. In one of the movie’s most moving scenes, Northup is forced to fight asphyxiation, by dancing like a ballerina, twirling on his tippy toes, struggling to breathe with a slightly tightened rope around his neck. He performs this awkward solo, among children who simultaneously play, and slaves who continue to move along with their day, numb to the trauma at the centerpiece of their field work.
Simply saying that 12 Years a Slave is difficult to watch is an understatement. An immediate, unexplainable hodgepodge of emotions will churn in the stomach and bother the brain while watching this film. Northup was a slave for 12 years. And those who head to the theater, to witness a portion of his life, will experience horrific, forced servitude for 2 hours. And for some, it will be too much to bear. A few in attendance walked out of a Toronto Film Festival screening. Others at a private showing at a Regal theater in New York, giggled. Not because the movie is funny, but in moments of undeniable discomfort and stress, some are subconsciously forced to laugh.
The violent atrocities depicted made actress Alfre Woodard experience a series of physical reactions. “My heart was racing, I felt weepy, like I lost somebody. I just kept having to talk about it,” she says, while sitting in her New York hotel room. Woodard has a tiny, yet unforgettable role as slave turned plantation owner’s wife, Mistress Shaw. “I didn't see it again until Toronto. And as soon as I hear the music…” Her words drift off as she begins to act out the breathing technique used while watching the movie, where she quickly exhales spurts of air like a woman working through the pain of childbirth. “And you know, people cry at different places. It's cathartic and it's, like, I probably wouldn't watch it again so soon unless I had to. But I have officially seen it twice now. I gotta pace myself.”
The making of 12 Years a Slave brought on forced mental trauma, of sorts, for some involved. While Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, receives Oscar buzz, being favored as a best actor nominee. Those with smaller roles, like Michael K. Williams, best known for playing Omar on The Wire and Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, had moments of difficulty when filming his scenes as another man kidnapped into slavery.
“Something happened to me. I crossed over at one point when you’re seeing my character, on the ship and they beat him. We did that scene maybe about 5, 6 times in a row. And something happened around, I don’t know, the 3rd, 4th, 5th time. We were getting ready to go, and Steve works very quick, he doesn’t take long pauses in between takes. And I like that, because it keeps the momentum up. So around, take 5, let’s say, you know they’re locking up the set and I look up at the sky and they picked me up and they dragged me to that shit. And when they finished beating me, when Steve yelled, ‘Cut,’ I got overwhelmed with such pain and grief. I just started screaming and shaking and I couldn’t stop crying. And the stunt coordinator, who was a white man, he got on his hands and knees on the floor. I was on the floor just balled up, screaming, screaming, screaming. Mind you Steve had said cut a long time now. And the stunt coordinator, he just held me in his arms like a baby. All he kept saying was, ‘It’s okay, let it out.’ And he rocked me. And I took a good 5 minutes, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs and shaking,” Williams says.
“And then I got up. It was just like a cloud had passed. I got up. I’m like, ‘I’m ready. Let’s go back to work.’ Like nothing happened. But I think I caught a glimpse into what our ancestors really went through. I think I put my big toe through the portal and I was able to tap into that pain of what actually really happened. And me, Michael, I couldn’t take it. I broke down.”
If you are brave enough to see 12 Years a Slave – as those who appreciate poignant cinema should, at least once, if you're brave enough – you will be utterly frightened, and leave this film in shock mixed with a heaviness weighed down by pain, anger, and the sadness of mourning – especially if you're African-American. Regardless of your race, you will feel awe, with intense respect mesmerized by the tribulations of those who still continue to fight and persevere today. But in the end, after quick contemplation, some won't like this film. They'll feel angry for being forced to look back. But most will likely unanimously agree that the emotions you are made to feel by watching, are what make it riveting, moving something overweight from the gut, to an ache in the heart, lump in the throat, and stimulation through the brain. All of this will rise to an epiphany that sees one thing: 12 Years a Slave with its petrifying, picture perfect silences, and scathing, graphically violent portrayal of black bondage will likely become one of the best cinematic filmmaking feats made and the greatest American horror story ever told.