This is the third time I’m attempting to write a review for 12 Years a Slave. Usually it takes me two to four hours at most to complete a review, one if it’s a film I don’t particularly care about and wish to be done with by going through the expected template of a film review. After all, there’s only so much you can write about Texas Chainsaw 3D.
It’s been well over a day since I’ve experienced Steve McQueen’s masterpiece and I’ve been struggling with how to perfectly recommend it so as many people as possible take the precious time out of their busy lives to see it. I started many drafts emphasizing the cultural and historical significance of the film, how it refuses to sugarcoat one of the most downright despicable periods of American history and brings us face-to-face with the sheer cruelty and inhumanity of slavery.
However, I understand that’s precisely the kind of language that turns off the general movie going audience. Being told of the cultural significance of a film and using overly dramatic sentences like "You owe it to yourself to see it" not only sounds condescending, but makes it sound like the audience are in for a boring history lesson they are being peer-pressured into spending their free time and hard-earned money on just so they’re not perceived as culturally devoid philistines.
Using bombastic adjectives like harrowing, uncompromising, unrelenting, haunting, unforgettable or gut-wrenching doesn’t really help the case either, since they make the film sound like the kind of emotional torture no one wants to sit through, other than a small percentage of film buffs who can dig deep and find the artistic beauty and significance in horrific tales of humanity and appreciate them from that angle.
So why don’t we just put all of that aside for a moment and just focus on the fact that this is an exceptionally well-executed film, a great work of visual narrative with excellent directing, powerhouse performances and remarkable cinematography. It showcases formidable technical prowess to present a profoundly moving story and sometimes that’s all we need to hear to be convinced.
Based on firsthand accounts of a free black man who got kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum south during the pre-civil war United States, 12 Years a Slave follows the harrowing (There’s that adjective again) story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he’s transferred from one plantation to another while his body and soul gradually wither away through years of physical and emotional abuse.
It deals with the very real history of slavery with a kind of direct honesty I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It makes Roots look like a feel-good Disney Channel special.
There isn’t a gun-wielding ex-slave coming to shoot up the plantation and rescue Solomon with vintage Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov music playing in the background and the Emancipation Proclamation is a long ways away. Unlike Lincoln and Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t present us with any emotional escape route in the form of a dry political procedural or an over-the-top exploitation flick.
As entertaining as Django is, it still presents an unrealistic revenge fantasy, fantasy being the operative word. It shows Tarantino fully embracing his exploitation influences and that’s why it works so well, but anyone who defends it as a culturally significant piece simply because it deals with slavery deserves a laugh in the face.
Steve McQueen is the perfect director to tackle the subject of slavery. With his excellent previous two features Hunger and Shame, he’s shown an observational style with a kind of direct honesty seldom seen from any contemporary filmmaker. As infuriating as some of the events depicted in the film are, he simply asks us to observe the truth, as opposed to dictating how the audience should feel about any given predicament.
An excruciatingly long take from a static long shot shows Solomon being hung from a tree as punishment for fighting back to a slaver (Paul Dano). As he struggles to stay alive, we merely observe the other slaves in the background, obviously wishing desperately to help the poor man. An emotionally manipulative director would have milked the crap out of that scene, showing close-ups of the slaves struggling with the mental torture of not being able to help a fellow human being simply because it would put their own lives at risk.
McQueen cleverly emphasizes the cold mechanical and industrial aspects of slavery as opposed to blatantly manipulating the audience’s emotions. There are moments where Hans Zimmer’s subdued but brilliant score rhythmically accompanies the various sounds of transportation and labor.
None of the white slavers are depicted as simplistic mustache-twirling movie sociopaths. They all find a practical excuse as to why they allow such atrocities to take place. This is what humanizes them and makes them that much more despicable.
For a slave trader played by Paul Giamatti, it’s all about his pocketbook. He displays naked black men and women for possible buyers, emphasizing each of their unique features as if he’s selling the new iPad at the Apple Store.
A slaver played by Benedict Cumberbatch tries his best to be kind to his slaves, including Solomon, but doesn’t move a finger to help them gain a modicum of dignity because he’s surrendered himself into believing that this is the way of the world and it cannot be changed. At one point Solomon himself defends him as not having a choice with the way things are.
Solomon is later transferred to work for a sadistic plantation owner named Edwin (Michael Fassbender), who uses religion, that good ole crutch for anyone looking for moral excuse to perform unspeakable acts, in order to justify torturing his slaves at will. He repeatedly admits that harming another human being for personal enjoyment is a sin, however, he views his slaves as his property and not as people, so he can do whatever he pleases with his property.
On the surface, all of these big names in the cast which also includes producer Brad Pitt in a small role sounds like shameless stunt casting on the part of the filmmakers, but they all do an excellent job in disappearing into their roles.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of those actors who elevate the quality of any film at least twenty percent simply by appearing in it. I don’t think 12 Years a Slave will win Best Picture. At the risk of sounding like a high school age hipster, I have to say it might be too real for Hollywood. However, Ejiofor’s Oscar chances for Best Actor are quite high with his heartbreakingly insightful performance.
12 Years a Slave is a great film that will stay with you long after you’ve seen it, there isn’t any doubt about that. Yes, you don’t owe it to yourself to see it, but in a way, you kind of do. Sorry.