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Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Premise: Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Set before the Civil War, a free African American is abducted in New York and sold into slavery.

What Works: Despite the central place that slavery has in American history and in the history of Western civilization itself, the topic has not been dealt with very frequently in mainstream or independent films and when it has the topic has typically been softened as in Gone with the Wind. 12 Years a Slave is a bold attempt to portray that history on screen and do it in a way that acknowledges its horror and inhumanity while also capturing the human element of the people involved on both sides of the lash. This picture deals with slavery in a very sophisticated way and a lot of filmmakers, especially those interested in historical and political topics, would do well to pay attention to what the crew behind 12 Years a Slave have accomplished. When dealing with topics like slavery there is a tendency to oversimplify or ignore the interplay of institutional and personal responsibility; movies like The Help reduce complicated histories of injustice and racism into bite-sized personal conflicts, which effectively lets society off the hook. 12 Years a Slave deals with slavery in a sophisticated way. This isn’t just a story about people being held against their will nor is it so reductive as to diminish slavery to small minded racism. This narrative takes its main character through the slave trade while always making reference to the way an economic system can perpetuate injustice. In many respects this isn’t just a movie about slavery; it is about how participating in a system of exploitation corrupts everyone and everything attached to it. The dehumanizing impact of slavery is displayed in the experiences of the slaves but also the slave holders and because the film emphasizes the corrupting influence, the actors involved are able to give some tremendous performances. 12 Years a Slave is led by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Ejiofor’s performance is packed with humanity. One of the standout qualities of Ejiofor’s performance and of the film itself, is that it does not give itself over to the kind of theatrics usually found in a historical picture. At no point does Ejiofor take an aside to make a grand soliloquy about his condition. Instead the filmmakers allow the conflict of hope and despair to play quietly across Ejiofor’s face and his performance is a study in what can be conveyed by silence and posture. Actress Lupita Nyong’o also makes an impression as female slave Patsey. Nyong’o plays a character who is pushed to the very limit and her struggle to maintain her humanity while constantly having to compromise herself makes her scenes some of the most heartbreaking of the picture. 12 Years a Slave features Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as a married couple who run a plantation and both are frightening in their roles. Fassbender has the flasher of the two parts but as malevolent as he is, the evil of his character is a palatable kind of evil; it has a human frailty that is distinctly different from most movie villains. Paulson is also effective. The way in which she manipulates her husband and sets traps for her slaves makes her very dangerous but in a restrained way. 12 Years a Slave is a very violent picture but one of its most notable features is the way it stages that violence. It is unsparing but director Steve McQueen finds unusual ways of photographing it so that the violence transcends itself and its immediate circumstances. The violence of 12 Years a Slave constantly draws attention to the normalization and institutionalization of that violence. In many respects 12 Years a Slave can be compared to 1993’s Schindler’s List in that it is a movie that takes on a terrible subject and presents its horror very honestly but also finds human dignity in a very dark place.

What Doesn’t: The comparison between 12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List is apt in both positive and negative ways. There is a criticism of Schindler’s List, attributed to Stanley Kubrick, that is apropos here. Schindler’s List is a film about a group of people who successfully survived genocide but the Holocaust as a topic is about the failure of civilization to allow that genocide to take place. Similarly, 12 Years a Slave is about one man’s emancipation from slavery but slavery as a topic is primarily about people who never escaped from bondage. This criticism is not airtight; it makes a demand on the film that is not entirely fair because it criticizes the picture not for what it is but for what it isn’t. A more relevant flaw of 12 Years a Slave is the casting of several high profile actors in minor roles including Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Benedict Cumberbatch. All of these actors are very good in their parts but the casting of recognizable movie stars is frequently distracting and creates an expectation that these characters are more important to the story than they actually are. In a similar way, fans of movie music may find Hans Zimmer’s score to this film distracting because of its familiarity. Zimmer is a composer who is known to recycle his own work and the musical cues of 12 Years a Slave repeat portions of the score from The Thin Red Line which had also been reused in Zimmer’s score to Inception.

Bottom Line: Filmmaker Steve McQueen had previously directed Shame, which was one of the best films of 2011. With 12 Years a Slave he has made a follow up every bit (and maybe a little more) as masterful. This a picture of enormous intelligence and humanity and made with considerable filmmaking craft. 

Episode: #466 (November 17, 2013)