12 Years a Slave Fassbender

“Man, that plausible creature whose wagging tongue so often hides the despair and darkness in his heart” Dennis Wrong

What makes a monster? What makes a man? In the filmic worlds of London born director, Steve McQueen, many tortured attributes and twisted ailments of masculinity intersect to form a deeply unsettling, yet unflinchingly candid, portrayal of male protagonists. The man McQueen has so often, and so memorably, chosen to depict these fractured representations is no other than Michael Fassbender. From Hunger, to Shame, to McQueen’s latest masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave, the partnership of McQueen and Fassbender has given rise to some unforgettably provocative characters – all of whom we witness in a physical and mental state of flux. We watch them battle with both themselves and the environments which they inhabit. Whether it’s the sleepless neon avenues of New York City, the cold cement and steel of a Northern Irish prison, or the sun-kissed dirt of a Southern plantation, the men that these cinematic microcosms of society force the duo’s characters to become is a heavy burden indeed.

Whether such characters can be defined as monstrous, or whether that to which they are exposed is truly monstrous, they ultimately draw our focus to the influences that afflict the lands upon which they roam. War, displaced identity, hyper-sexuality, violence, and slavery are all omnipresent and inescapable factors of their daily lives. Slavery and imprisonment, both literal and figurative, are key themes for McQueen throughout all of his feature films. Though it may well be Solomon Northup (or as we come to know him, Platt) who is physically chained and held against his will in 12 Years a Slave, isn’t Fassbender’s megalomaniacal plantation owner, Edwin Epps, just as enslaved as the hands he has pick his cotton? He is enslaved by the confines of the religion he chooses to manipulate and bastardise, enslaved by his sexuality and attractions (namely an attraction to a woman without a white face), and enslaved by a cruel and domineering ideal of masculinity to which his wife repeatedly reminds him he must adhere. Edwin Epps is by no means a free man.

“Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.” Norman Mailer

 12 Years a Slave and McQueen’s other films concern themselves with honour… and its disappearance. There are characters who know right from wrong, moral from immoral, and yet they remain stricken and silent – tortured by their wrongdoing, and incapable of winning those aforementioned battles with both themselves and the environments they inhabit. McQueen’s films rob men of their honour by varying means. It is only a man of true honour, free from the rigours and mind-set of the immediate Southern slaver society, Canadian drifter, Bass (Brad Pitt), who finally offers Solomon a resolution to his harrowing ordeal.

Hunger Fassbender

2008’s Hunger depicts its male characters deprived of a strong functioning body, stripped of their identities, denied of their spirituality, and homogenised. Its dramatization of the events which occurred inside Maze Prison allows its characters to inhabit a hellish limbo, removed from reality and the world outside its soiled cells and blood-stained shower blocks. They are beaten, bloodied and violated in the most barbaric of manners, and yet the prison guards perpetrating such savagery are also visibly conflicted and disturbed by the acts they are forced to carry out. A scene involving a fresh-faced riot guard hiding from the brutality and weeping proves especially poignant. Fassbender’s portrayal of IRA paramilitary volunteer, Bobby Sands, and the graphic manner in which his character is used to explore themes of self-destruction and martyrdom reveal a man’s willingness to destroy himself and the lives of others in the name of his own established conventions of honour – desperately clinging to them until death.

2011’s Shame confronted audiences with Brandon, another leading man portrayed by Fassbender. McQueen elects to confiscate Brandon’s sense of honour and self-respect through addiction, specifically, sexual addiction. In a similar manner to Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, it is his immediate environment and its effect on the people who populate it alongside him, which poses the greatest threat to Brandon. He utilises sexual gratification to attain the immediate highs of which his vapid nine to five life in the city is absent. Unlike alcohol or drug addiction, Brandon’s vices allow him to physically function and ‘fit in’ amongst his New York colleagues, even allowing him to appear as a Lothario as opposed to the deviant he actually is. However with the introduction of his sister Sissy, and the resurfacing of Brandon’s supressed emotions, he enters a downward spiral of sex, self-loathing and violence – two things which the surrounding city is more than willing to accommodate.

Shame Fassbender

Ultimately McQueen and Fassbender’s protagonists embody many different forms of men and masculinity. They are sons, brothers, lovers, addicts, prisoners and slavers – products of the environments which they inhabit and proliferate. Though McQueen may not be directing, it is no surprise that Fassbender has been chosen to fill the role of the titular Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s upcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloody classic. Has there ever been a more damning fictional indictment of man, and his weakness to submit to evil as means of acquiring power, than Macbeth’s sinister descent into murder and madness?

Many may not immediately acknowledge the universality and contemporary relevance of 12 Years a Slave’s story due to its stylistic period grandeur, and the paralysing impact of its deeply affecting true life tale. On the surface the picture reminds us that nearly two centuries after Solomon Northup’s wrongful capture, modern slavery still controls and claims the lives of millions of individuals across the globe – individuals all with names, families and a right to be free. Beneath the surface, McQueen and Fassbender have once again drawn upon history’s frailty, holding a mirror up to today’s society and revealing that though the reflection may appear different visually, we are still deeply affected by similar issues – just one of those issues being the confused and frustrated nature of masculinity today.

Whether breaking down his body in Hunger, exposing his restlessness when faced with modernity in Shame, or condemning the abuses which occurred by his hand in 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have created a portrait of man who many may consider monstrous. However, they don’t paint with black and white, but rather shades of grey. They address incredibly emotive and painful subjects such as the troubles in Ireland, and the horrors of slavery, and yet, consistently they strive not to present political agendas, heroes, villains, or even monsters, but simply, human beings.