I watched Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave last night and I'm still not sure how to go about processing what I saw. I hope it's not hyperbolic for me to say that not since Roots have we seen such an unflinching portrayal of Slavery in America. But even more important than that (or at least more important within the confines of this blog) very rarely have we seen a more confident and capable filmmaker than McQueen. If this man doesn't finally get his (long overdue) Oscar, a great disservice will have been done by the academy.
The Story (possible spoilers to follow): 12 Years a Slave is based on the novel of the same name by Solomon Northup and it details his experiences in slavery. Northup is a free black man living in New York with his loving wife and their two children. As a talented violinist, he is offered a job playing for two magicians in a traveling circus, and he goes with them to Washington DC in faith and friendship only to wake up one morning after a night of hard drinking chained in a slave market. Without easy access to his papers, and working within a system that clearly doesn't want him to have access to his papers, he is quickly given a new name, and a story claiming that he is a run away slave from Georgia. What follows is an amazing story of a kidnapped black man being sold into slavery for 12 years and forced to try and survive.
The story is powerful and amazing to witness, but the film is really a triumph of excellent direction from McQueen. I honestly don't have words to accurately describe how amazing McQueen's work is here, and somehow that's the most fitting reaction since the most powerful things McQueen does within this film have nothing to do with the words. This is a triumph of visual storytelling. I first noticed this signature from McQueen when I watched Shame in theaters. There are so many moments in that film where McQueen was content to just let Fassbender sit and allow the thoughts and emotions of the character to play across his face. Often during the numerous sex scenes of that film, the camera was trained on Fassbender's face instead of on the bodies of the characters, and the affect of this choice was to bring the viewer into Brandon's head and witness the turmoil of a person suffering from a sex addiction. McQueen brings that same sensibility to 12 Years and the affect is twofold: you get a great human story watching Chiwetel Ejiofor allow Solomon's emotions just bubble up to the surface or forcing them down and out of sight, and you get an uncomfortable experience of witnessing the horrors of slavery.
In one of the more remarkable scenes of the film, Solomon is being lynched after he dares to challenge and then repeatedly strike his first Overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano in a very understated and ultimately thankless performance). One of the other Overseers saves Solomon's life, but leaves him hanging from the tree, his toes barely scraping the muddy ground and supporting enough of his weight to stop him from suffocating, until the plantation owner, Ford (played by the eternally amazing Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives home and cuts him free. McQueen holds the shot of Solomon hanging from the tree for the most amazing interval. It might have been five minutes, it might have been five hours, I'm not sure, but the impact of it is undeniable. As Solomon struggles in the foreground, life goes on around him in the background. Children play, men and women continue their work, the lady of the house looks on briefly before heading back inside, one woman sneaks up to him to give him a drink of water before quickly rushing off again, no one speaks, no one other than that kind slave woman acknowledges him, and the audience is left with the impression that this is just business as usual. It's nothing short of brilliant.
The film always stays in the moment and never really crosses into judgmental territory. I can't say that the slave owners are ever portrayed as sympathetic, but they aren't unduly demonized either. McQueen presents the situations as they happened and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. There are two moments in the film where it feels, however briefly, like the filmmakers are trying to make a message or tip their hands a bit more than necessary. One exceptionally illuminating conversation with Alfre Woodard and the conversation between Fassbender and Brad Pitt's characters. But both scenes work well and fit within the confines of the story. Oddly enough, the resonant moment in the film, for me, was something Ford said to Solomon. "Whatever the circumstances, Solomon, you are an exceptional nigger, but I fear no good will come of it." If you're looking for a line with implications that echo through time to the present, look no further.
12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart. It earns its R rating through unflinching portrayals of abuse and sexuality that were as much a part of Slavery as the hard back-breaking work. But for those with the stomach to take it, 12 years is an amazingly powerful and exceptionally well made film. Great direction, breath taking performances from all of the film's stars, and an emotional experience that will move you and open your eyes.