Okay, so acronyms aren’t my strong point. “AMISBRAS” (which I think accidentally
translates from French as “Friends Arms”) stands for “Amazing Movies I Shan’t Be Re-watching Anytime Soon,” and included on that list are movies like Requiem for a Dream, When the Wind Blows (1986), and Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Seriously, those movies took a year or two off my life. 12 Years a Slave absolutely fits the theme, registering a solid 9 on the Melville-Gladwin Sadness Scale: it is a harrowing film about the horrors of American slavery told through the narrative of Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped and sold to plantation owners in New Orleans. Director Steve McQueen brings a powerful artistic touch to the story, making it all his own while still capturing the real-life story of Northup and real-life horrors of the institution.
Also, in case the name Steve McQueen still confuses everyone, I am going to reference one of my favorite people to quote, the fantastic guest-writer Will Standish: “I recently learned that 12 Years a Slave is not directed by the Steve McQueen I was picturing, and that in fact the Steve McQueen I was picturing has been dead for over thirty years” (or something to that effect).
The Steve McQueen of increasing fame from 12 Years a Slave is the director of Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), two similarly harrowing films. Of the two, I have only seen Shame, which let me know immediately that Steve McQueen does not fuck around. He portrays difficult subjects without flinching, in Shame‘s case the realities of sex addiction. My only major complaint with that movie is that he occasionally indulges in unfittingly-artsy moments, things that you expect to see in lesser projects from film school. Still, the overall product is powerful, finding the human story in the subject. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen provides many artful touches without even a hint of excess. His strengths as a director have been honed to great effect.
The story is not brand new, as many people in America today are familiar with the horrors of slavery. Still, anything that has been seen before is not a redundancy but rather an important part of history, and even more significantly a part of Northup’s story that cannot be ignored in his character arc. 12 Years a Slave is a movie about slavery—one that can and should be viewed in places like American classrooms—but also one about a fantastic character. That is what makes it not just a movie about something, but a fantastic film in its own right. Northup’s development goes from free, intelligent individual to a man silenced by his oppressors. Ejiofor is phenomenal in his performance, speaking volumes through his silence and communicating more in his eyes than many actors could through lengthy monologues. He is understated but never underdeveloped or underacted. His story is in his silencing.
The acting all around is commendable. McQueen has always been able to yield great performances from his actors and actresses, but Ejiofor is matched by Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave favored—that is, obsessed over and raped—by cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps, who is played to similar calibre by the always great Michael Fassbender. Audiences will also recognize Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who provide reliably potent performances despite their short screen times. Their characters feel human, representing numerous sides and viewpoints of this time period that give the story a human factor and not settling for simple “White Southern Dudes in this time period were all evil.” Some might recognize Quvenzhané Wallis (from Beasts of the Southern Wild) as Northup’s daughter, who is not a major part of the movie, but…well, I think she’s pretty awesome, so I was glad to see her make an appearance.
But lest I focus too much on the acting, I also want to say that this movie is a great success at almost every level. Again, the portrayal of slavery feels real, heart-achingly and painfully so. McQueen is not afraid to linger on scenes that will make audiences recoil, ensuring that we understand the truly despicable acts that occurred in this time period. The long shots, the wide angles capturing the faces of both the punished and the punisher, and the quiet moments following tragedy are beautifully composed and used to great effect, making us empathize and root for Northup through his hardships. McQueen has developed his method significantly since Shame, and it shows.
I also do not want to neglect the work of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt—who, like McQueen, Ejiofor, Nyong’o, and Fassbender, would not be out of place earning an Oscar for his work—and writer John Ridley, who complete the experience of 12 Years a Slave. The dialogue is believable but flows between characters like Shakespearean script. Maybe I’m off-base making that claim, but each statement is full of meaning and beautifully delivered, revealing the characters in realistic ways and furthering the story. While some characters represent ideologies—which is hard not to do in a movie whose subject is a historical institution with people from many mindsets, not to mention a story based on a memoir written from one party’s perspective—they still feel human, in part due to their complex motivations and depth-filled portrayals.
12 Years a Slave has been making the critical rounds and garnering a lot of buzz. It’s deserved, in my opinion. Each aspect of the movie works with the others, building a powerful story about both a person and a message, reminding us that there are narratives to be found and stories still to be told about an important part of America’s past. The ability to make a film based on a true story in a time period many audiences will be familiar with that still manages to stand on its own as an artistic piece is impeccable, and while I can’t say I will be watching 12 Years a Slave again anytime soon, I can say that I am glad I have seen it.