Steve McQueen’s historical masterpiece 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)


Director Steve McQueen

Director Steve McQueen

2013 proves to be a fairly competitive year for the Academy Awards, with big names and titles vying for the top spots. British director Steve McQueen‘s film 12 YEARS A SLAVE about the real life experiences of Solomon Northup has been nominated for nine Oscars, and it deserves every one.

Although this film about a black freeman who is kidnapped into slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War has been criticised for its raw representations of a very difficult historical reality, American audiences have proved they are prepared to face the evil’s of the past. When asked to address the issue of violence in his film, McQeen responded:

“We’ve passed the $100 million mark, and that just proves that that’s just not a question to raise anymore. It just shows you audiences are looking for a challenging film. Someone told me very early on, ‘Steve, this movie is more important than you.’ And I understood that and I took that with me.” (Entertainmentwise)

While 12 YEARS A SLAVE is by no means the first film about slavery ever made, it can be contrasted to the most recent slavery-themes movie. David Denby calls McQueen’s film “an artist’s rebuke to Quentin Tarantino’s high-pitched, luridly extravagant DJANGO UNCHAINED,” (The New Yorker) and The Christian Science Monitor says it serves as a “necessary corrective to the antics of DJANGO UNCHAINED.”

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The significance of Solomon Thorthup’s story cannot be underestimated, not can the reaction it has solicited from movie audiences. McQueen’s directing style, which has its roots in art cinema, has blossomed into a full-bodies narrative that his previous projects failed to achieve. Yet he brings an aesthetic finesse to 12 YEARS A SLAVE which enables the film to overcome the limitation of the more classical narrative structure.

MCDTWYE FS008“Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost? Tell no one who I am? That’s the way to survive? Well, I don’t want to survive – I want to live.”

English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (KINKY BOOTS (2005)) plays Solomon. He only seems to have one expression throughout the whole film, one of pained incredulity. As valid as that emotion may be, it is hard to read the intricacies of a character who is living through a complex variety of experiences when his face only expresses one feeling. Leonardo DiCaprio might give Ejiofor a run for his money on Oscar night.

However, Lupito Nyong’o, who plays the abused slave girl Patsey, is well within her class for this year’s nominations. With a depth and complexity of feeling seldom found in an actress so young, she transforms the pain of Patsey’s experience into a multi-faceted expose of the thought environment in which she was living. The audience can read the tension of her dilemma in every line of her face and in the sway of her movements. She gives nothing less than an Academy Award-winning performance.

Michael Fassbender almost steals the show as the sadistic slave master Edwin Epps. His character captures the hypocrisy of his position becuase he is ton between his carnal desires and his religious doctrine. This results in his being dangerously unstable, lashing out abusively at his wife, Patsey, and at innocent bystanders, namely Solomon.

Another performance worth mentioning is that of everyone’s favorite modern super-sleuth, Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays a more benign slave master, who, despite his paternal kindness, is no less embroiled in the duplicity of his position. While he is no doubt a kind and righteous man, he does not attempt to argue the injustices or slavery, but rather chooses to partake of the benefits which that corrupted system offers him.

12 YEARS A SLAVE is doubtless a hallmark film which will have a beneficial, broadening influence on the film industry’s ability to take risks with historically challenging subjects, like slavery. My only criticism is in the presentation of certain parts of the biopic. For one, the scenes that take place in the North, when Solomon is yet a free man, have a bitter self-consciousness to them that diminishes their credibility. One review observed “an overall historical-reenactment stiffness in the presentation.” (Monitor)

Quvenzhane Wallis (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)) plays Solomon's daughter Margaret.

Quvenzhane Wallis (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)) plays Solomon’s daughter Margaret.

There is also a degree of sparseness in the interplay between the slaves. Though we observe Solomon living and working among many other enslaved black men and women, we seldom see him speaking with them. Patsey talks to him, but he does not initiate conversations with her. This might be a deliberate move to show how alienated Solomon feels from enslaved people, feeling more equal to his free masters. But the effect is simply that the film lacks any sense of a black community.

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While McQueen captures beautifully the beauty of nature in the American South, at times it is hard to believe that he is providing an image of the glorious pre-war South. The pomp and grandeur one hears about in stories like Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” and see in films like JEZEBEL (1938) is completely absent from this story. Edwin Epp (Fassbender) is basically white trash, and though he has a large house and a well-dressed wife, his social life seems limited to forcing his slaves to dance for him in the middle of the night. Ford (Cumberbatch) seems more social, yet he lacks the affluence one associates with the deep south of the slavery era.

12 YEARS A SLAVE is definitely worth cheering for come March 2 (here’s a printable ballot). This movie is going to become part of America’s film canon, as a significant piece of our historical narrative. It’s a long movie to see in the theatre – I’ll admit I had to leave at one point to go to the bathroom, but it will be a good DVD to add to your collection.

Other reviews of 12 YEARS A SLAVE may be found at the following blogs/websites:

The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias (The New York Times)
The Guardian
’12 Years a Slave’ is a necessary, if stiff, look at the history of slavery (The Christian Science Monitor)
Fighting to Survive (The New Yorker)
The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Steve McQueen (The Large Association of Movie Blogs)
’12 Years a Slave’ is a Masterpiece (Review) (The Cinematic Katzenjammer)


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