Interpreting the architecture of “12 Years a Slave”

A movie critic looks at what director Steve McQueen says in the architecture of the film 12 Years a Slave:

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.

Once they make a pact that will lead to Northup’s freedom, McQueen gives us a shot of the completed gazebo, with Northup standing under it. He’s recovered at least a suggestion of his dignity; he won’t have to work, write letters, clean himself or take abuse from his various white tormentors in the open air any longer.

Architecture is society — in this film as in all of McQueen’s work — and Northup is about to be restored to it. This is also where convention comes in: Architecture gives us one of the first signs that the movie is going to have an old-fashioned happy ending.

There is more here about how McQueen has used architecture in his other films.

This review makes it sound like the architecture is symbolic. In this film, it indicates Northup’s fate. But, what about how the characters interact with the architecture and space? What about how social space affects their interactions?

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