’12 Years a Slave’ Review
February 28, 2014 20 Comments
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Coming from the director Steve McQueen, ‘12 Years a Slave’ can now be comfortably described as this year’s cinematic sensation. The film, which is based on a self-autobiographical novel by Solomon Northup, recounting true events, tells the story of a black free man, who, at the start, happily lives with his family in Saratoga, New York in 1841. After he is tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, his life turns up-side-down and a once brilliant musician and an educated family man is now forced to endure an unjust and hard life of a slave in Louisiana. The film is very truthful to Northump’s novel, and filled with so much realism and outstanding acting/directing, that putting this into perspective, when Brad Pitt’s character, Bass, a Canadian carpenter, starts talking about freedom and rights for black people at the very end of the film, we may find it hard to believe him – so engrossed we have become in the ideology of that time and in black people’s lives on a plantation in Louisiana in 1840s. And this is not an exaggeration.
Before the release of the film, in my pre-review, I debated on McQueen’s choice of the topic, speculating that a lot has already been said on the topic of slavery, and thinking it would be hard to reach out and produce something original. Little did I know…It would probably be so for any other director, but this is Steve McQueen – the director who does not hide from the difficult, shocking or controversial, and likes to portray it as it is. After grossly underrated and largely unjustly ignored ‘Hunger’ (2008) and Shame’ (2011), it is a relief to find out that McQueen’s talent is finally dully acknowledged by numerous nominations and awards which ’12 Years a Slave’ have received (more than 250 overall?). Some say that ’12 Years s Slave’ sets a new standard for realist cinematography with McQueen and Fassbender pioneering the movement, and it is often sad to point out that such cinematic brilliance has already been set in their previous films (though not in such large a scale), but went almost unnoticed. ‘12 Years a Slave’ is nominated for 9 Oscars (and yes, I expect it to win in the Best Picture Category).
Having said that, ‘12 Years a Slave’ is probably not a film you would like to watch after a hard day’s work to relax; most of the time the film is very hard to watch, and certain scenes are bound to leave you rooted to your chair, if not in shock, in sheer amazement. It seems that if McQueen’s aim was to gain its audience’s full and undivided attention, he definitely succeeded. One won’t be fiddling with one’s clothes or let one’s eyes wonder in boredom while watching this one, and the director knows it. McQueen knows exactly how to produce the biggest impact with a controversial topic, and one does not even begin to imagine before the viewing the sheer force of the impact which ‘12 Years a Slave’ produces. McQueen is to be applauded for the realism which the film displays. ‘12 Years a Slave’ watches almost like a documentary, and, as one critic notes, the film is probably ‘the most important film ever made on the topic of slavery in the US’. After the viewing, it seems that this statement is almost an understatement, considering the sheer amount and quality of detail of a daily life of a slave which is on display here.
Here probably comes the only criticism I can direct to this film. Depressingly realistic scenes are stylishly executed, with lingering shots and wonderful use of music (composed by Hans Zimmer, and getting dangerously close to Inception’s soundtrack), but they are arguably one too many. It would have been better to include in the midst of all the horror we see in ‘12 Years a Slave’ some brighter and more light-hearted material, but the film is devised in such a way that its audience is not allowed to catch their breath until the very end. It is also perplexing to hear so much/and see Brad Pitt’s front credits for this film, considering that he appears in the film for such a brief period of time (director’s cut?), and if one thinks that‘12 Years a Slave’ is this inspirational film about combating slavery in the US, one would be disappointed (the trailer may give that impression – but this is no ‘Amazing Grace’ (2006) and it is light-years away from ‘Django Unchained’ (2012)).
The performances in ‘12 Years a Slave’ are nothing short of brave and powerful, and given the context in which they are played out, it is no wonder to hear of nervous breakdowns of actors on the set, e.g. as in the case of Michael K. Williams and their passing out, as in the case of Fassbender when he filmed the rape scene. In fact, beatings, lynchings, separation of families and other degradations all take place in ’12 Years a Slave’ and if the actors are not completely exhausted, their audience will be. Chiwetel Ejiofor, although initially refusing to accept the role, gives a truly humane and humble performance of a man who suffered a gross injustice. Lupita Nyong’o plays a pretty slave girl who becomes an object of constant attention of her despotic master, and for a newcomer Nyong’o performance is brilliant. Nyong’o and Ejiofor are both this year’s nominees for the Oscar Awards. The film also features Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sarah Paulson who are all good in their small roles. If there was a real revelation for me in the film, it was Michael Fassbender who plays Edwynn Epps, a cruel plantation owner of Solomon (Platt). From his role in ‘Jane Eyre’ (2011) and ‘Shame’ it is evident that Fassbender is capable of portraying arrogance and complete emotional detachment with some degree of excellent, but his role in ‘12 Years a Slave’ is in a completely different league. Fassbender is so believable in his role of a despotic slave-owner it is truly frightening to see him on screen, so unpredictable and terrifying his character’s behaviour is. Fassbender gives the performance of his career to date, truly deserving an Oscar nomination and win.
When I said in my previous review that Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ (2013) is visually spectacular, but easily forgettable, I might not meant it in such strong terms, but upon viewing Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’, maybe I meant just that. After all the special effects and Clooney’s up-beat personality in ‘Gravity’ slowly fade away, the silently persisting and shocking theme of ‘12 Years a Slave’ virtually guarantees the iron-solid imprinting on our minds.
Overall, it is only too clear that ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a masterpiece of a kind. Although the film can provide for a very uncomfortable and even depressing viewing, it is never short of brilliant in terms of cinematography, acting, directing or overall topic presentation. It is high on realism, intense, brave, nuanced, stylish, incredibly thought-provoking, and would probably count as one of the best films I have ever seen. The easiest 10/10 I have given so far.