It’s not often that filmmakers will find themselves in the unique position of those who had the unenviable responsibility of bringing 12 Years a Slave to the screen. The seemingly Sisyphean task director Steve McQueen and company accepted was to make a film that, if done well, would assuredly sicken everyone who viewed it. In no uncertain terms, they’ve succeeded. Traversing the course of 12 Years a Slave induces a bout of emotional gymnastics which can hardly be understood, let alone dictated. To view this film is to experience every emotion you’ve known and to their fullest intensity. As the credits rolled, I was left to wallow in my silent exhaustion; raw to every sensation. I would describe those moments as having been numb, if only the ability to feel even that had not be stricken from me. In short, 12 Years a Slave is incredible, and it’s deplorable; all at once.
12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of the 1853 book of the same name; that book, in turn, is the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a man who was born free (as we all are) in New York; kidnapped in Washington, D.C.; and sold into slavery in Louisiana. This is antebellum America; complete with the uneven sensibilities of a fractured nation on the brink of what would inevitably be the American Civil War. The film does everything well, and the representation of just how untenably disparate slavery is is no exception. Can a man be called good who sees no path but that which has been worn bare by the stride of those who eagerly exude evil and so believes his only option is to tread lightly in their footsteps? Does a man fall slave to cowardice, if it’s mere survival he accepts as his master? Do the definitions of freedom and civility lay only in the left hand of that man who would wield an oppressive whip in his right? These are just a few of the questions faced by antebellum America; they are not only raised in 12 Years a Slave, but they are posed to an audience which, so many years later, still struggles to find answers.
Steve McQueen directs, from a screenplay by John Ridley. McQueen has previously directed two films, Hunger and Shame (both starring Michael Fassbender, who co-stars in this film); while those two films both deal with sensitive subject matter–and are both very good–it’s no exaggeration to say this film represents a markedly higher difficulty for McQueen to navigate, and he does so brilliantly. McQueen’s camera paints across the canvas of this film with the gentle ease of a summer breeze caressing fields of tall grass on a Louisiana afternoon. His cast is left to live out ineffable events to sometimes excruciatingly honest lengths, as his camera seems as uninvolved as the sun is to a cold day; intruding only enough to shine a light on a frozen world. Because it is a film, and there is a narrative, there are moments of direction which lend necessary dramatic definition, but they are inconsequential to the overall untouched and raw reality recreated by the actors.
Of those actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor is the lead, portraying the systematic disintegration of Solomon Northrup. With any film that covers an extended period of time like 12 years, you expect an actor to exhibit the usual effects of aging. Of course, the life of Solomon Northrup was not one subjected to only the usual effects of aging. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is not only one of remarkable transformation, but by the end of the film, he visibly wears the weight of a man who’s had himself irrevocably changed by despicable means.
The others in the film include the beautiful Lupita Nyong’o, who is unnaturally stripped entirely of her natural loveliness; the aforementioned Michael Fassbender, who somehow finds within himself the ability to personify malevolence; and Benedict Cumberbatch, who provides an askew ray of tinted sunshine morality amid a cloudy sky raining interminable cruelty; as well as an entire cast full of exceptional performances.
Every aspect of this film is done to tremendous quality; it’s almost a tragedy, in itself, that the result of such craftsmanship inherently results in absolute revolt. There’s nothing to dislike about this movie, outside of the horrible consequence of history which made it possible. 12 Years a Slave will test your resolve and bend your spirit to the point of breaking, but you will–despite everything–walk away having experienced an unspeakable happiness.
12 Years a Slave is currently in the midst of a typical awards season release, having already been in theaters for a few months but still yet to enjoy much of a truly nationwide push. Having just won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, the film is certain to receive a nomination for Best Picture when the Oscar nominees are announced tomorrow and will be the frontrunner to take home the award at the 86th Annual Academy Awards on March 2nd. Throughout this period, the film will experience an expanded release, so everyone will have another chance to see it