12 Years A Slave was one of my most anticipated movies of the fall. Steve McQueen is one of the best up and coming directors. His last film “Shame” is an A+ film that depicts sex addiction in an intimate and profound fashion. Going in you know that this is going to be a powerful and hard movie to watch. The story follows Solomon Northrup, a free man in New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1800’s. McQueen holds nothing back here. This is essential and powerfully moving cinema. The cast led by the amazing Chiwetele Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o and others is one of the best ensembles of the year.
This is really the first film to depict slavery as it really was, and it’s not easy to watch. Quentin Tarantino turning slavery into a spaghetti western doesn’t count (but that was damn entertaining). This film depicts its characters and their conscience through powerful emotionally charged scenes. This is very much a character piece rather than a story. There’s many moments that evoke the darkness and hopelessness of humanity that you don’t want to believe happened, yet you can’t look away from the screen. That’s McQueen’s biggest strength. He knows how to use the camera to layer his film with depth, beauty and fully rounded characters. The film as a whole is raw and full of emotion. The scenes between Chiwetele Ejiofor as Solomon and Michael Fassbender as the complex and evil slave owner, Edwin Epps are where the film reaches it highest moments. We’re looking at Oscar performances here.
While delving into these characters, the film runs into a few minor issues. The film always remains dark and elegant but the balance between a narrative and the characters feels slightly uneven. The pace moves somewhat slow at times when the narrative is in certain plot points. I’ve heard some say the film is not long enough and some say it’s too long. I think the issue is because of how the length of the film is used. This is a story that spans 12 years but when the film ended it feels like I’d only been watching a few years. The film is broke into three specific portions of Solomon’s time as a slave. The final portion with Edwin Epps (Fassbender) proves to be the strongest.
By the time we get to the third act it feels like Solomon has only spent a year or so as a slave. In this way, the whole journey didn’t quite captivate me with scale and story which ultimately hurt the catharsis of the film at the end. The film is sporadically captivating in its narrative but still remains interesting in its slower portions. It might just be a creative decision they decided on. It doesn’t hurt the film much, just makes it oddly paced and very slow at times. The exploration of characters makes up for any issues with the story, that’s how powerful the film is with character. What is most impressive is the struggle of identity that occurs to Solomon over this time. The changes of characters throughout is what makes the film feel like it handles its character extremely well. The relationships between characters are meticulously crafted and authentic,
Ejiofor’s performance is perfectly on point as he is dehumanized but still holds on to an identity. His name is changed and his slave owners constantly torment him. The ability to convey the loss of identity while still emitting humanity is incredible. Pacing issues aside, this film works masterfully with emotion. The moral implication of the film is more straightforward than it could have been but the emotion is what comes first here. The character study of Solomon in the film limits its moral complexity by not wanting to ruin the audiences identification with Solomon. Just don’t expect The Shawshank Redemption. The film as a whole greatly resonates emotionally and that’s enough to cover up a few minor thematic and narrative issues. This is McQueen’s power as a director. Undeniably this has some of the best scenes of the whole year. The final confrontation between Solomon, Edwin, and Patsy is one the most powerful of the year.
Twelve Years A Slave is certainly a powerful and essential film depicting a time that is always glossed over in the history books. I don’t think I ever need to see this again but I’m glad I experienced it. This stuff happened and hundreds of years later we’re still not comfortable talking about it. Steve McQueen isn’t afraid to explore controversial topics. Be sure to watch Shame as well, which is my favorite film of McQueen’s. He understands character far far more than most directors and Twelve Years A Slave showcases his talent. This film is full of brutality but it’s shot and handled with elegance as well. Many of the shots are hauntingly long and make you feel uncomfortable, which is the point. They’re a Stanley Kubrick kind of shot. Ejiofor and Fassbender are mesmerizing in these deeply characterized roles. McQueen will certainly start a conversation about this topic and that’s the power of cinema. As a viewer you will feel the captivity and horror that Solomon felt. This is a story of a man on a dark journey that not only wants to survive but to live as well.