12 YEARS A SLAVE
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt
Steve McQueen's masterpiece is a difficult mix of style and substance. Where the film could delve on white guilt and the sadness of slavery, it chooses instead to be a film about the troubles of a man. While Lee Daniels' The Butler focused on brutality to unite a culture, 12 Years a Slave focuses on history to unite the human spirit.
McQueen's last effort, the severely underrated Shame, showed the British director's panache for telling a story by using all of its elements, sometimes focusing on the incredibly bad and graphic. With Slave he leaves the confines of stylish walls and furnishings and takes us into the antebellum United States to tell the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who mistakes a business opportunity and ends up in the hands of slave dealers in the south. Without his papers and belongings, Northup is destined to live a life of torture in the deep south.
His years of servitude from plantation to plantation make Northup stronger, mentally and physically, while also tearing him down. His fellow slaves are just as dynamic in their day to day practices as the slave owners are in their opinions and beliefs. At times things seem unrelenting and over-the-top ridiculous, but McQueen chooses to make the horrendous words and actions appear as the cultural norm, which then makes it seem even more ridiculous that society would ever be comfortable.
The film works well when it focuses more on human spirit and survival rather than the few times it delves into racially obvious undertones. White guilt can only go so far. Luckily, as stated earlier, McQueen chooses to make a film about human spirit, rather than just a social commentary on racial tension.
The performances are key here and there are plenty of great moments. Chiwetel Ejiofer appears like a young Denzel as Solomon Northup. Michael Fassbender, the star of McQueen's Shame, plays a fierce and unrelenting plantation owner. His love for a slave girl, played with furor by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, drives him into a paranoia. His wife, character actress Sarah Paulson, is even more sinister as her jealousy grows over time. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Northup's first owner and his savior, to a certain degree. Paul Dano is disgusting as an over-the-top bully letting his outburst at Northup cover up his own discrepancies. Brad Pitt (who also produced the film through his Plan B title) has a small, but pivotal, cameo.
The pleasure here is that McQueen's style wins over what could be a run-of-the-mill emotion story. He uses Hans Zimmer to provide a score that is both classical and artsy while fully supporting the intensity of each scene. Sometimes quiet and sometimes bombastic, Zimmer's music is a different notch than would normally be seen in a historical drama. The rest of the elements (costuming, cinematography, etc.) are more fluid than distracting, allowing the story to breathe freely, rather than becoming an up tight costume drama.
McQueen is known for not holding back and there are a few scenes that are hard to watch. A whipping scene is especially hard, leaving nothing to our imagination. The story is powerful, but sits right on the line of impressive storytelling and emotional pulling. Slave hits a nerve, but it's hard to tell which nerve that is. Films like this can sometimes be uncomfortable for many different reasons and can be a different experience for each viewer. As a white person, I know that my feelings after the film were different than the rest of the people in the theatre. I don't really know what that says about the film's impact, but I do feel a sense of appreciation for McQueen by not making the focus of the film the fight for racial equality, but more of a story of redemption, which is something we can all understand.
The film has gotten a lot of great reviews and will definitely be an awards contender. It may even be the frontrunner for Best Picture right now. The film is a testament to a great director and an impressive attempt at telling a difficult story. It's interesting that it took a British director to tell a respectable American slavery story.
Runtime: 133 minutes