12 Years A Slave Review

years a slae

Is it too late to talk about 12 Years a Slave ? Don’t care. I’m going for it anyway. Artist-auteur-genius-king-unicorn Steve McQueen continues to prove himself one of this era’s most radical filmmakers, simply by being honest. His is a voice distinct–powerful, unreservedly straightforward–and much-needed in the sea of shameless monotony that is Hollywood. It should come as no surprise then to learn he is British. More than ever before, media outlets were quick to point out his nationality when the time came to promote 12 Years A Slave, even though, of his three feature-length films, McQueen has yet to make a film located in his native Britain (Hunger told the story of IRA legend Bobby Sands and Shame took place in New York). I can only assume the fact he is British  matters now because detractors failed to find fault with 12 Years A Slave itself.

And so again and again interviewers and critics asked McQueen if he felt that he could (read: who do you think you are to…) tell this story, and he promptly shut them down each time.  He gave his most beautiful response early on at this year’s Toronto Film Festival:

“Yes, I’m British. My parents come from the West Indies–Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother was born. Trinidad is where (Stokely) Carmichael was born, who coined the phrase ‘black power.’ It’s complex. Marcus Garvey, Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, I mean American, West Indian, British…it’s about slavery. Chiwetel is British-Nigerian, and then we have Lupita, a Mexican-Kenyan. It’s about that triangle. It’s not about me being British. It’s about me being part of that history.”

The fact that so many have questioned his “right” to tell this story, verging on the most absurd accusations of appropriation, suggests to me he did something right.

A perhaps unnecessary caveat: You will not enjoy Solomon Northup‘s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tale, that of a free, educated man, loving husband, gentle father, who is tricked from his home in New York and sold into slavery in the Deep South. It is not a story of redemption, and I hesitate call it one of hope. Yes, hope carries Solomon through in the end, and he turns his dreadful experience into a platform for abolitionism and activism, but his captors are never brought to justice. And the film is so thickly shrouded in darkness that even the light at the end of the tunnel seems powerless to overcome it all.

Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave  follows in the tradition of McQueen’s gritty, raw predecessors with its unflinching look–stare, actually–at the stark reality of slavery. This is not for the faint-hearted. The whipping scenes go on and on and on and on and on and on. The cruelty, the dehumanization is even more painful, and that should tell you a lot. One woman is separated from her children and then told by her white mistress, “Have some food…your children will soon be forgotten.” Well, then.

What makes this such a remarkable story on several levels is how straightforward yet complex it is. Far too long slavery and pretty much all films about American history that touch (for they rarely delve deeper) on the oppression of black people have been reductive. This incredibly dark and tragic time in our history has been reduced to little more than a fable. The message is always this: Racism is bad. Back in the dark ages, there were evil white people, but there were good white people, too. The good white people saved the poor black people. Racism is bad. The end. And that right there, is why racism is so far from being over. For it is not a demon perpetrated by evil people. It is a pervasive, deep-rooted enemy, hatred at its worst, but in its most common form it is ignorance. And anybody can be ignorant, willfully or otherwise.  All it needs to survive is privilege. This is evidenced in Solomon’s time with Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford can hardly be described as despicable. When he first appears, he attempts to buy Eliza (a sadly underwhelming Adepero Oduye) and her children together, only to be thwarted by a callous Paul Giamatti.  Ford rolls over rather easily and contents himself with Eliza and Solomon. Ford is indicative of most people at the time. He is a man comfortable in his own privilege. He likes Solomon, is kind to him, but he is ultimately unwilling to go beyond what is comfortable and safe for him.

Compared to Epps (a deliciously sadistic Michael Fassbender), Ford is a saint. Epps boasts himself a “nigger-breaker,” but it would be more appropriate to call him an alcoholic sociopath. Fassbender delivers a stellar performance, perfectly matched to Ejiofor’s heartfelt, luminous performance as Solomon.  It is at this point that Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) enters the film, and practically steals the show with her silent elegance and unwavering dignity. Solomon might be the soul of the film, but Patsey is undoubtedly the heart. Unlike Solomon, as far as we know there is no happy ending for her, and very little reprieve from her despair. She finds herself in a doubly unfortunate position, not just as a slave, but the unlucky subject of Epps’s unwanted attentions, and by turn his wife’s jealousy and disgust. Between the two Epps, Patsey is tortured to the point that she fantasizes about death. Nyong’o easily gives one of the best performances of the year, especially commendable given her comparatively little screen time and dialogue. The rest of the cast (a who’s who of today’s most sought after talent: Cumberbatch, Giamatti, Paulson, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt) is just strong, doing Solomon’s story justice. 

The film itself is a hard pill to swallow, but if you can manage to swallow it more than once, it’s worth it. Beautifully acted and shot, 12 Years A Slave is definitely due for some recognition come awards season. I can only hope that more than it is recognized it is awarded, Ejiofor and Nyong’o in particular. Perhaps the film’s only failing is the sadly homogeneous score by Hans Zimmer, which, though effective, seems a relatively careless effort and sounds too much like his other scores (most notably The Thin Red Line) to make a real impact.

It’s definitely not easy viewing, but I recommend it, for a refreshingly stark portrait of one  of America’s darkest periods.

5 out of 5*