12 Years a Slave, 2013.
Directed by Steve McQueen.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhané Wallis, Garret Dillahunt, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, Ruth Negga and Taran Killam.
In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
To review 12 Years a Slave one must ask what the intentions are of director Steve McQueen. If his film is to show his audience acts of inhumane cruelty and suffering at the hands of fellow man, then his film is a success. If, however, McQueen is aiming to educate or offer insight or commentary into slavery, then his film offers surprisingly little depth.
Unlike McQueen’s previous films Hunger (a certain contender for one of my top 100 films if were to ever make such a list) and Shame, this film is far more accessible as far as narrative is concerned. With numerous famous faces and acting talent on the screen, a Hans Zimmer score, and released by Fox Searchlight, the film is a ‘prestige picture’ from beginning to end, just presented in a different way than perhaps we’re used to. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with films made for award recognition, but this is one such film.
Stemming from his background as an artist, McQueen’s previous films were achingly beautiful in their composition, like a work of modern art, telling their difficult stories in a way we perhaps had never seen before. The extended long takes of two people talking in Hunger and Shame allowed the characters to speak and engage naturally, uninterrupted by reverse shots or reaction shots in films where dialogue is sparse; in Shame McQueen shows Michael Fassbender running down a New York street in an a single, seemingly simple, tracking shot when his character has no other way of releasing his inner anxieties; in Hunger we see police in full riot gear arrive at the prison and then follows a complicated tracking shot as we see the naked prisoners getting beaten and cavity searched. It is impactful in both the execution and in what it is telling us; these men were being treated unlawfully and it fuelled their cause to hunger strike.
In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen uses similar techniques but to various degrees of success. The director’s most technically masterful and impactful sequence by quite some margin comes near the beginning once Solomon is up for ‘sale’ as he shows us in one take several rooms of slaves presented like they were machinery for sale. The man who is taking bids and selling the slaves talks about them as if they are not in the room, he handles them like they are manufactured on an assembly line, and he doesn’t hesitate to separate families. Money has changed hands long before men entered this room; this scene alone tell us everything which is immoral and fundamentally wrong about slavery and is a technical triumph by McQueen.
There is a short scene towards the end where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) surveys the landscape, looking around, only for him to look straight at the audience, breaking the ‘fourth wall’. His eyes say so much. His eyes ask so many questions. It’s a brave decision by McQueen, something we only tend to see in silly comedies and it reminded me of the sequences in Spike Lee’s best films where they are removed from the reality of the film, provoking a response from the audience. It works because it’s short, unexpected, and asks the audience to reflect what Solomon has been through. Subtle. Simple.
A lot has been said about the next two sequences which I need to discuss, and it is these two which I feel fail to do anything other than draw attention to McQueen’s obvious infatuation with the human body and what can be inflicted upon it. In one scene Solomon is hung with just the tip of his toes touching the soft mud below him; the screen is filled with just this image but instead of perhaps a jump cut to later that night to show the passage of time, McQueen keeps the scene going, and slaves appear in the background as if on cue to lengthen the scene, and then he cuts to show others watching on, and then to children playing in the background. The artistry takes over, and the impact of what is supposed to be conveyed is lost as McQueen clearly does not support the ‘less is more’ school of thought.
Moreover, in prolonging the sequence he doesn’t make his audience feel any more sympathy for Solomon than if the scene were far shorter, but wants them to feel uncomfortable watching a man nearly dying. This raises the question I asked before; what is the intention of this film? What is McQueen trying to suggest here other than slaves were treated inhumanly? It may appear shocking to some, but to me it’s a misjudged sequence by the director.
Another extended take comes towards the end of the film, where Solomon is forced to whip a female slave, and one which their owner (Michael Fassbender) has a sick affection for. In the scene we see her whipped numerous times and the flesh is seen tearing from her back (quite a technical achievement in itself) but quite why McQueen feels the need to show us this in such graphic detail is uncertain. This, along with a scene where the slave owner rapes this female slave, only serves to show severe flaws and inconsistencies in the screenplay; whose story are we supposed to be invested in here? If it is that of Solomon’s, then why are we being shown a rape scene he had no part in and never saw (according to the film), and why are we seeing the girl torn apart when Solomon himself has been whipped repeatedly before? If, that is, we need to see anyone torn apart at all to feel sympathy for them.
This film’s unique take on the story of slavery is that Solomon was a free man before being kidnapped and sold into slavery, yet the screenplay is far more interested in showing us the day to day abuse of him and the other slaves than it is showing us his life before that tragic day. We do get one or two traditional style flashbacks but the immediacy to which the film wants to show beatings and depravity clearly shows where McQueen’s interests lie. We know precious little about Solomon’s life which means we can only sympathise with beatings and brutality, but what makes Solomon different from any other slave? That’s not to say any other man, woman, or child ‘deserved’ to be in his place, but to tell his story with such a little attempt to give him any background suggests the film makers are not interested in him, only his suffering.
When the film is not showing us the more ‘artist’ or ‘creative’ film making techniques, it is, I have found, rather forgettable in a way I never expected. Certainly the acting is, for the most part, excellent and the production values are faultless and never try to be anything other than realistic, but you can say that about many films gunning for award glory. The screenplay at times, however, is really poor, especially in the few scenes where Brad Pitt makes an appearance as the man who comes in and helps Solomon in his fight for freedom. Moreover, the final 15 minutes see everything wrapped up so quickly and Solomon reunited with his family that, once again, it becomes obvious that this film is preoccupied with brutality and not with the art of storytelling.
Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves all the recognition he will undoubtedly get for his performance, and Fassbender again shows his range as one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. However, this is not enough for a film which undeniably is aiming higher than just a platform to display great acting. As mentioned, McQueen can tell a story in his own special way to devastatingly brilliant effect, but this film feels far too unbalanced upon reflection and, crucially, its intentions are unclear. I learnt very little about Solomon Northup and saw a several terrible things happen to people who didn’t deserve it. Surely there’s more to be told than that.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.