Directed by: Steve McQueen
R. 133 mins
Using his signature visual style to create profound moments of near-silence along with a surprisingly delicate and haunting score from Hans Zimmer, Steve McQueen explores the subject of slavery with sombre realism. Within the context of the American slave trade, he tells the story of one man but focuses primarily on the relationships between master and slave, asking his audience what they might have done in this situation, being careful not to pass judgement on any character as either good or evil. Inspired a remarkable true story, McQueen directs from a script he co-wrote with John Ridley, based partly on Solomun Northup’s memoir of the same name.
The year is 1841 and Solomun Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free-born black man who earns a living playing the violin and enjoys a comfortable life with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York. One night, he is betrayed by his friends and is suddenly abducted and sold into a life of slavery for – you guessed it – twelve years. Over the years, Solomon is traded from one plantation to the next, witnessing all sorts of cruelty and experiencing every kind of abuse imaginable. He desperately yearns to escape, but knows that he must keep his education to himself if he wants to stay alive. Powerful and horrifying, there is a sort of abstract beauty throughout the film and it’s one that we’ve come to expect from McQueen. Filmed in Louisiana near where the real Northup was enslaved, McQueen’s venture has much more beautiful scenery than the far grittier Django Unchained. We hear birds chirping, the wind blowing through the trees and the cracking of whips all add to this strange sense of wonderment in the Old South. The film feels like a painting, despite the subject matter, and while it offers an interesting sort of contrast to the atrocities being committed, it doesn’t add anything to the spirit of our protagonist, who often feels like a passive-observer in his own story rather than the hero of it. This is made even more curious by the fact that Northup passionately expresses his desire to not only survive, but to live, and yet there is never a moment to stand back and investigate the philosophical challenges and psychological reasoning behind all those who lived during this troubling point in America’s history.
The main issue with the film is one that presents itself is all of McQueen’s work, and that is a penchant for depicting pain, specifically the amount of torture a human body can endure, along with a preference for image over psychology. Certainly not to be compared to the often comical Django Unchained, this is a tremendously serious film which depicts torture in such an unflinching manner that some have found it difficult – albeit necessary – to keep watching. There is good intention behind the film, but I’m not entirely convinced this film has earned the “masterpiece” label that many have suggested.
Two hours of degradation is quite a journey, but outside of our visceral reaction, what are all these unflinching depictions really teaching us? Not to mention the fact that it hardly feels like Northup has been enslaved for over a decade, and while this could be in part because of the shifting between plantations, the journey just doesn’t seem to have any sense of time attached to it. Northup doesn’t seem to feel the same sort of agonizingly slow passage of time that his fellow slaves do. A remarkable performance like Lupita Nyong’o provides for some gloriously powerful emotion and while Ejiofor delivers a great performance, there is very little probing into the history of all these characters. Michael Fassbender, a clear favourite of McQueen, is also convincing as the sadistic plantation owner whose rage is easily provoked by his wife (Sarah Paulson), but we have no glimpse into where it all comes from and all the pathology that lies beneath such behaviour. Paul Dano is similarly off-putting as a carpenter intent on proving his superiority to the black man. What these people did was vile, but there’s little effort to understand it, or to educate. McQueen seems to opt for images and sounds that convey the tone and atmosphere of loss, rather than probing any deeper into the histories of these characters. We have hardly a glimpse at what Solomon’s inner life was as both a free man or a slave, so the conclusion, while satisfying, doesn’t pack that punch one might expect after twelve years of suffering. The film is full of details from the period and it all feels very authentic, but there is an emotional distance that really shouldn’t be there given the subject matter. By depicting the slavers as these cartoonish monsters, it reinforces the idea of evil as “other,” where the audience can easily raise their hands up in the air and say that they would never do such things; There is a barrier between them and us. Both the slavers and the enslaved are trapped in this world where there a sense of “that’s just the way it is” and it is only when a Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt) comes out of nowhere, that Solomun’s plight may be resolved. t’s an odd turning point in the film, and one that serves as another break in the plotting of this episodically structured film. It also reminds us once more that this is a work of fiction – a work of art – even if it’s based on true events. Some truly Oscar-bait lines (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live!”), uninterrupted shots of cruelty that some critics have deemed unnecessarily self-conscious, and the all-star cast constantly serve as a reminder of McQueen’s presence in the work and it removes us from the truth.
To his credit through, the film contains many powerful images; Most notably a prolonged shot of Northup, strung up from a tree as punishment, his feet barely reaching the ground, while plantation life continues around him. Unlike the salty Django Unchained or sweet The Butler, McQueen’s film confronts slavery and all it’s atrocities with no holds barred without shying away from any language or imagery that some may find unwatchable. Unfortunately, the film does shy away from really transcending the institution of slavery and the mindset with which all those involved were operating under. Nor does it speak to the soul and spirit of those who fell victim to it, with a few exceptions of course. The film will certainly spark dialogue about race in America and the entire cast should be commended for their deeply felt performances. 12 Years a Slave is an intensely artful journey with noble intentions but the attention to aesthetic beauty, even in it’s most horrific moments, render the film historically and emotionally safe, through art.