Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave Challenges Audiences to Face History

I’ve wanted to say this for a while, but I’ve been too nervous. I’m not a superstitious person, but I do believe it’s not smart to call something before the clock stops. I will let it out now, though: 2013 has been a remarkably good year for movies.

Of course I mean in terms of quality; I’m not sure how the industry is faring economically. But I am serious when I say that this is one of the best calendar years I’ve lived through when it comes to movies. Sure, there have been some real disappointments that have belly-flopped their way into theaters—you broke my heart, Man of Steel, you broke my heart—but there’s also been home run after home run, and sometimes from players no one expected. These masterpieces are flooding in from every genre, from comedy (like the apocalyptic duo This Is the End and At World’s End), to action (Pacific Rim), and even thriller/horror (see previous columns on Europa Report and Prisoners). 

But a truly excellent year for film is defined by its significant releases, the films that will unquestionably stand the test of time. 2013 has had these too. Gravity, which I wrote about just a few weeks back, is a technical marvel that redefined the possibilities of cinema. Short Term 12, a film I was unfortunately unable to write about, is an innovative, humanist masterpiece with all the power of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the passion of Pixar. And now, there is Twelve Years a Slave.

I’ll warn you right now: This is a very difficult film to watch. Twelve Years a Slave is an adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped while touring Washington, D.C. as a musician and subsequently sold into slavery. As the title suggests, he toiled for 12 years on different Southern plantations before finally regaining his freedom. However, the impermanent quality of his suffering does not make it any easier to witness the atrocities this movie depicts.

Director Steve McQueen has captured the horrors of slavery with Twelve Years better than any film in the past. One of the ways that he accomplishes this is by limiting his story to the perspective of a single person. Until the very end of the film, there are no outright statistics given. There is nothing to bring us out of Northup’s life. In focusing solely on the experience of one man, we are left with a much greater understanding of the lives of millions of slaves.

The atrocities that Solomon witnesses and experiences are startlingly juxtaposed with everyday experiences. As in McQueen’s earlier films, Hunger and Shame, he manages this through a masterful sense of framing and an innate knowledge of how long to let a scene play out for the greatest cinematic effect. One shot in Twelve Years a Slave uses this technique perfectly: Punished for striking an overseer, Solomon is left tied by his neck to a tree branch with his toes just barely on the ground. The shot lasts several minutes, as, in the background, other slaves slowly emerge from hiding and go about their tasks, ignoring this choking for fear that they will themselves be punished.

The film is full of brutal, long scenes like this, and viewers are struck by how demanding this movie must have been on the actors, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon. Ejiofor, who I’ve only seen previously in Children of Men, is so brilliant in his role that I am nearly speechless. I can’t wait to see more for him in the future. Likewise, the relatively unknown Lupita Nyong’o is overwhelming as Patsey, a young slave girl who is the object of her owner’s abusive obsession. Many recognizable faces also appear, to mixed results. Michael K. Williams, who played Omar on The Wire, performs well in his few short scenes. The same goes for Paul Dano, whose “extremely punchable face,” as one critic has put it, serves him well in his role as a vengeful overseer. Praise must also be given to Paul Giamatti, who provides one of most uncomfortable scenes in the film with his heartless portrayal of a major slave dealer, and Michael Fassbender, who rivals Chiwetel Ejiofor for best performance, as Solomon’s monstrous owner.

There is only one major problem I found in Twelve Years a Slave, and it is related to the casting. Brad Pitt, whose credit as executive producer suggests he forced his way onto the cast, plays a Canadian abolitionist who eventually helps Solomon get free. It is a ridiculous, distracting performance that doesn’t fit logically or thematically into the movie. Twelve Years a Slave is a challenge to white America to face the evils of its past, but upon the appearance of Pitt’s character, this group is given an out. No longer do white people actually have to consider the events on screen and whether they would have intervened or not; instead, this threatens to become just another civil rights film in which the white guy decides to do the right thing and save the day. Pitt becomes a stand-in for every modern person who now obviously knows slavery is wrong. His only dialogue with Fassbender’s plantation owner essentially adds up to just that: “Slavery is wrong!” There is not an ounce of subtlety to him, and his performance shoots an otherwise-perfect film in the foot.

Despite my anger at Pitt’s character and my warnings that this movie is extremely hard to watch, Twelve Years a Slave is an absolutely fantastic film. The horrors of slavery will forever be a scar on America’s past, and far too often our culture tries to ignore them. Every American should see this movie.

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