“12 Years a Slave” Review
February 28, 2014 20 Comments
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Coming from Steve McQueen, ‘12 Years a Slave’ can now be comfortably described as this year’s cinematic sensation. The film, based on a self-autobiographical novel by Solomon Northup, recounting true events, tells the story of a black free man, who lives a happy life 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 the unjust hard life of a slave in Louisiana. The film is very truthful to Northump’s novel, and is 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 black people’s rights at the very end of the film, we may find it hard to believe a word he says – so engrossed we have become in the political and social ideology of that time, and in black people’s lives on a plantation in Louisiana in 1840s. This is no exaggeration.
Before the film’s release, in my pre-view, I debated 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. And, it would probably be difficult to produce originality in this theme 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’ has received so far (more than 250 overall?). Some say that ‘12 Years a 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 a cinematic brilliance has already been set in their previous films (but maybe not in such large a scale), but strangely went almost unnoticed. ‘12 Years a Slave’ is nominated for 9 Academy Awards this year, and yes, I do expect it to win in the Best Picture Category.
Having said that, ‘12 Years a Slave’ is probably not a film 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 one rooted to the chair, if not in shock, than in sheer amazement. It seems that if McQueen’s aim was to gain its audience’s full and undivided attention, he definitely succeeded there. 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’ is capable of producing. McQueen is to be applauded for the realism 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 regarding this movie. 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 some brighter and more light-hearted material, but the film is devised in such a way that its audience is not allowed to catch even a moment’s 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 movie only for a brief period of time (director’s cut?). Also, if one thinks that ‘12 Years a Slave’ is this inspirational film about combating slavery in the US, one will 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 Williams and Fassbender. In fact, beatings, lynchings, family separations and other degradations all take place in ’12 Years a Slave’, and if the actors are not completely exhausted by the end, their audience will be. Chiwetel Ejiofor, although initially refusing to accept the role, gives a truly humane and humble performance of a man who has 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’s performance is brilliant. Nyong’o and Ejiofor are both this year’s nominees for the Academy 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 in the film, it was probably Michael Fassbender, who plays Edwynn Epps, a cruel plantation owner of Solomon (Platt). From his role in ‘Jane Eyre’ (2011) and ‘Shame’ one can see clearly 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 this 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 of his Academy Award nomination.
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 themes of ‘12 Years a Slave’ virtually guarantee 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 artistic films ever made.10/10