Directed by Steve McQueen. 134 mins.
Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)
I first encountered the story of Solomon Northup in the eighth grade when my history class watched Half Slave, Half Free, a film made for PBS in 1984. While the film had a strong crew (featuring the likes of Avery Brooks and Joe Seneca) and was directed by the usually hard-hitting Gordon Parks (of Shaft fame), I could tell even then that I was watching a highly sanitized account of the events.
Luckily, Steve McQueen doesn’t know the meaning of the word “sanitized.” Just has he did so wonderfully in Hunger (and in Shame, albeit with underwhelming results), McQueen presents a story of a man’s struggle to endure his own personal Hell and never once spares the audience the grim details of the ordeal. With its visual style of finding beauty in the grotesque and its excellent ensemble cast, 12 Years a Slave is among the best Oscar bait-type films I’ve seen since Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
McQueen was a perfect match for John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s memoirs. As a black man (who isn’t a total creep like Lee Daniels), McQueen has an window into the black experience that the Spielbergs, Demmes, and Zwicks of the world – through no fault of their own – can simply never possess. Secondly, as a London native, McQueen has the benefit of having a relative outsider’s point-of-view on America’s peculiar institution.
McQueen has no intention of turning Northup’s story into any sort of epic. Even when his stories take place within a larger historical event (such as Hunger and the Troubles of 1980s Ireland), McQueen never lets the protagonist out of his sights. No less important to the film’s intimate atmosphere is the photography which lingers on gorgeous slices of the machinery and landscape of the antebellum South, showing off McQueen’s talent as a visual artist (for which he received a formal education). The wheel of a steamboat, the algae atop a river, and even the patterns of dangling flesh on the back of a whipped slave are framed as if they were art installations.
Chiwetel Ejiofor has been a supporting actor for nearly 20 years (his performances span the likes of Love Actually, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, and, sadly, 2012), but his ascent to leading man was worth the wait. Ejiofor holds his own against the likes of current Hollywood obsession Benedict Cumberbatch, frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender (who is excellent as a Legree-ish slave driver) Paul Dano (a sadistic but cowardly carpenter), Sarah Paulson (she’s prolific, look her up).
Even in the scenes where he talks to Brad Pitt (who plays a conveniently virtuous gentleman, but his production company provided the film’s finishing funds, so I guess we can’t complain), Ejiofor never loses command of the screen. Relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (who plays the object / victim of Fassbender’s desire) turns in a particularly fine role.
I can easily see 12 Years a Slave winning lotsa gold at the 86th Academy Awards (including Best Picture) provided that the AMPAAS voters interpret the film as a white-man-saves the-black-man story that they hold so dear. Since there is little evidence that the majority white, old, male voters are sensitive to even the most obvious subtext, I suspect they’ll bite.
12 Years a Slave is definitely not a white saviour film. If that’s what you want, Amistad and Avatar are always a mouseclick away. The assistance that Northup receives from white folks in reclaiming his freedom (this isn’t a spoiler, the dude wrote a goddamn memoir) is not exceptional charity but rather a long-overdue correction of an atrocious act at the hands of whites. The strength that Northup displays to get to that point was entirely his own doing.
Moreover, Northup’s reunion with his family is not a joyous occasion – for him, it is a painful reminder of the precious time of which he was robbed and will never regain. His attempts to sue the conmen who sold him into slavery fail (blacks at the time could not testify against whites in a court of law). The reality is that Northup was a second class citizen even up North, and that was the best life he could have hoped for.
(Seen and written on 2013-10-18)