Title: 12 Years a Slave
Play time: 2h 14min
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender
An Oscar-Hopeful by Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Having explored extreme political protest and sex addiction, maverick English filmmaker Steve McQueen tries his hand at a historical epic about slavery. But those who fear that 12 Years a Slave – star-studded, bigger-budgeted, and Oscar-hopeful – might be a sanitized prestige picture need not worry too much. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, the film is thornier and more challenging than most Hollywood fare dealing with historical atrocities, and deeply concerned with the moral valence of its protagonist. In searching for the point at which survival turns into complicity, it may have the most in common with Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone.
The Summary in 12 Years a Slave Comes Down To 135 minutes of Non Stop Terror
The film is a tough sit: very violent, and sort of inherently monotonous. Its dramatic modus operandi is fundamentally – although not exclusively – to make its main character suffer increasing levels of physical pain and moral degradation over the course of its 135 minutes. It is also single-minded; basically non-stop horror. There is virtue in refusing to look away, but there are also tough questions about the utility of spending over two hours graphically demonstrating slavery’s moral monstrosity, of which the audience is presumably aware.
What saves the movie’s bacon is its refusal to lionize Northup – indeed, its (and his) constant, urgent doubts about what he and other slaves around him must do to stay alive. In one stunning shot, Northup hangs from a noose, his toes barely touching the muddy ground, while his fellow slaves quietly go about their business in the background. Later, in the film’s brutal centerpiece, Northup is told to whip a woman tied to a post, or they both will be shot – and he does, because he must, or so it seems to him at the time. McQueen even has the guts to undercut his big climactic moment of triumph with a grim question about the fate of another character and Northup’s responsibility for the same. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t presume to judge Northup – you try enduring 12 years of this without doing worse – but a lesser film would have turned him into a hero. This one acknowledges that heroism was impossible, and explores why.
The Unique & Eloquent Script of the Film
The movie has an eloquent, stylized script – I doubt that anyone ever actually talked this way, but it’s certainly more interesting than simply scrubbing modern syntax of inappropriate slang. Chiwetel Ejiofor beautifully embodies the film’s combination admiration and moral hesitation, and a slew of recognizable faces (Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Michael K. Williams, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy) show up for (mostly) brief, distinctive turns. McQueen’s penchant for bold gestures (e.g., an overseer’s racist anthem juxtaposed with a plantation owner’s Biblical sermon) keeps the film from ever falling into the stupor of a worthy Hollywood historical biopic. His only real affirmative misstep comes at the end of the film, in a long, pointless debate between a slaver and an abolitionist that introduces needless historical context to what had been a personal, insular story.
Final Thoughts: 12 Years a Slave is a Great Movie
12 Years a Slave is a more conventional effort than Hunger or Shame, but it’s every bit as searing and tough-minded, and hardly less challenging. McQueen has edged toward the mainstream without surrendering what made him interesting, which is great to see.