A lot has been said and written about Director Steve McQueen’s latest film 12 Years A Slave, due to its (staggeringly, still controversial) subject matter, the fact that it’s been out in the US since November, and that it has received increased attention with recent award nominations and wins. A lot of that commentary is, frankly, bollocks and overly focused on whether a film like this about slavery should be made. Simply put, you must see this film. That does not mean that it is perfect, but it certainly comes close, and it is important, powerful, raw, and visually arresting.
Adapted from Solomon Northup’s own account, 12 Years A Slave depicts how Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man from New York State, a musician with a family, was drugged then kidnapped in 1841 by men claiming to be able to help him make good, quick money playing violin. From there he is sold into slavery; first to the (comparatively) kind Ford (Benedict Cumerbatch), and then, following an incident, to the psychotic Epps (Michael Fassbender). Northup (forced to adopt the name Platt) learns what he must lose of himself to survive, his past, his humanity, and to suppress his anger and intelligence.
While Fassbender is memorable as the scenery-tearing Epps, it is the man who appears in almost every scene whose performance is the most affecting. Having to conceal much inside makes the work of Ejiofor all the more remarkable. Northup has no voice over, next to no speech in which to clearly convey his feelings, and Ejiofor does fantastic things with a move of the head or shoulders, his face a wordless tool of expression. He is supported by a uniformly superb cast including Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson; with the exception being the jarring appearance of co-producer Brad Pitt as the Canadian ‘saviour’ in the final act.
The film is excellent in numerous ways, but to me, at this point McQueen is still primarily a visual artist, (albeit a fantastic one). This leads to striking images such a Northup strung from a tree for fighting with his overseer, his toes constantly searching for purchase as the day wears on and everything continues as normal around him. These and other scenes have a lyrical quality to them, McQueen juxtaposing violent images with the striking beauty of the south in ways that are reminiscent of Terence Malick. But I feel like it’s this visual, painterly focus, that keeps 12 Years a Slave from being a really great film.
The problem comes from this combined with the fact that, however intentionally, McQueen continues to focus on the human form, on free will, on the fight between body and soul that he demonstrated in previous work Hunger and Shame. This visual primacy and bodily focus, for me at least, creates an emotional distance for the viewer. We witness numerous terrible and violent acts, but all with a kind of cold detachment. McQueen creates a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere of mental and physical torture, and unrelentingly depicts it for two hours. Hans Zimmer’s score coupled with the brutal imagery gives it the feeling of a horror movie at times, which in many way it is. It can be difficult to watch, as it certainly should be, as this is not a subject to be diminished. I’m not saying that there should be some sort of Oscar-bait style emotional catharsis for the viewer to make them feel better, but I came out of the film feeling some what numb, appreciating, acknowledging what had happened, but without any sense of connection with Solomon or events. Then again, perhaps this is a frivolous criticism, perhaps McQueen has deliberately avoided filtering the experience through specific emotions and is merely presenting it as realistically as possible.
Either way, 12 Years A Slave is required viewing for numerous reasons, including the excellent acting and visual feast in serves up, and another step in the journey of a director who is quickly becoming one of the most exciting around.
12 Years A Slave will be released in Australia on January 30th.
12 Years A Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumerbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson
Distibuted by: Icon Films
Running time: 134 minutes