As Schindler’s List has shown, it is critically difficult to untangle the atrocities of history from the artistry of the director who attempts to bring them to the screen. Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded treatment of the Holocaust was flawed in both concept and execution, yet at times it had me sobbing. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is equally imperfect but necessary.
Perversely, this movie, about the atrocities of slavery in the United States, is made mostly by foreigners. Its director is British, its leading man is a Londoner, and its main supporting actor is Irish. Only screenwriter John Ridley and various smaller supporting roles draw from our stateside talent pool. Which is apropos, when you consider the long history of denial our nation has maintained about the damages of slavery and the stain it has left on our history.
Based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, McQueen’s film chronicles how a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is fooled by white men into traveling from New York to Washington D.C., where he is then kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup is stripped of his identity and renamed Solomon Platt. He is viciously beaten and eventually becomes the property of a relatively benign plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who values him for his intellect. Unfortunately, Solomon runs afoul of a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano) and is sold. This lands him with Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who lords over his manor with a Bible in one hand and a whip in the other. Drunk, depraved and capricious in his brutality, he mercilessly exhausts his plantation hands and rapes and jealously obsesses over a young slave named Patsey (award-worthy newcomer Lupita Nyong’o).
Solomon becomes a dehumanized witness to, and unwilling participant in, the extreme violence and bone-numbing physicality of slave culture, but through all the madness, he clings to his dignity. It’s an excruciating and inherently monotonous tale, and McQueen is blessed to have an actor like Ejiofor at its center. With but a glance, the actor can convey fear, cunning, remorse or agony. It is an intensely soulful performance that balances Solomon’s instinct for survival against his fierce commitment to decency.
As a filmmaker, McQueen is no stranger to the humiliations of the flesh. His previous movies, Hunger and Shame, were compositional exercises in bodily agony, crafted with the unblinking yet aesthetic eye of a formalist. Here, he attempts to provide both historical and personal context and purpose to his craft, and only partially succeeds. While 12 Years a Slave deserves praise for its outstanding performances and urgent, unsentimental approach, McQueen can’t quite bridge the gap between his meticulously crafted images and the emotional nuances of his characters.
For instance, Solomon plays the violin, but we never get a hint of what it means to him. We understand his longing for his family, but never with any specificity. The same goes for Fassbender’s and Cumberbatch’s slave owners. As good as both actors are, there’s no sense of who these men are outside their scenes. The film gives us plenty of emotion and pain and anguish, but little ambiguity or depth. McQueen imbues his film with undeniable artistry and intellectual rigor but startlingly little passion. You will be angered, horrified and moved by what you witness in 12 Years a Slave, but you will not be challenged.
Nevertheless, none of these criticisms should dissuade you from seeing 12 Years a Slave. It may not achieve the greatness it deserves, but it is still a very good film. And despite what some might say, the history of American slavery has been woefully under-served by Hollywood, making it all too easy for revisionists to rationalize, rewrite or dismiss the moral darkness our nation once embraced.
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