Months back, when the first trailers for “12 Years a Slave” landed in the Internet, I’d lie if I said I was impressed. While I’m perfectly aware of the fact that film previews are pretty much a genre in their own right, to me everything pointed to Lincoln-esque Oscar bait that once again would try and play the race card in hope to win over those precious Academy votes. Such assessment seems quite harsh, especially in light of the film’s actual content and message, but at the time there was nothing that would leave clues about what one should really expect from “12 Years a Slave”.
Now, in retrospect, I tend to think the disparity between the bland, slogan-filled previews (that made sure you’d know how many high-profile actors were in it) about hugging and frowning, has worked perfectly in service of the film, as if to elevate the shock factor it carries inherently. Boy, even having read the reviews from across the pond before “12 Years a Slave” made its way to the British domain, I didn’t exactly grasp the extent of discomfort this viewing would bring.
The film is based upon a memoir by Solomon Northup and as the title suggests depicts the author’s ordeal as he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Interestingly, it is not the first film adaptation of “12 Years a Slave”, as it was televised as “Solomon’s Northup’s Odyssey” by PBS with Avery Brooks as the lead and I presume it never received much of an attention. Steve McQueen’s vision, on the other hand, is a completely different beast and whilst being a painful experience, it was aimed at the widest audience possible in hopes to finally approach the subject matter with appropriate sensitivity. “12 Years a Slave” takes an extremely naturalistic approach in retelling the harrowing story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free-born black American, a skilled fiddler, who one day finds himself deceived, drugged, sold into slavery and smuggled to Louisiana, where he would spend over a decade being mistreated, beaten, denigrated, and brought to the very brink of sanity by the vengeful southern overlords.
The film is literally stacked with brilliant performances and contrary to my initial expectations, they all work in service of the story and the film’s takeaway message (maybe with the small exception of Brad Pitt, who takes his role a bit over the top, but that’s a topic for a separate occasion). Moreover, I’d say that despite the extremely difficult subject matter, some of the actors, like Paul Dano (portraying a vindictive overseer), or Michael Fassbender, who embodies the ultimate evil incarnate as the self-indulgent, violent and borderline mental plantation owner Epps, have really put themselves out there for the sake of the cinematic naturalism.
McQueen’s direction initially felt completely alien to me and only after some time I grew acclimatized to what I thought was a theatrical delivery of lines and (too) extreme emoting from the lead characters. I don’t necessarily hold it as a downside to the entire experience, because I presume it has more to do with the fact the dialogue was taken more or less verbatim from a 170-year-old book. Yet, it did require some effort on my part to stay immersed in the story. Still, my inability to come to terms with the flow of dialogue in “12 Years a Slave” does not neuter the performances in any way, and in a film like that the acting can (and does) add massively to the impact.
And the impact is what lies at the heart of “12 Years a Slave”. The combination of the acting performances with the imagery really does build a horrid picture of what was a reality to millions. There’s a clear point to everything we get to see on screen, from the violent whippings, through brutal rapes, all the way to the extended sequences of moral and mental belittlement of the main characters. I found it even more striking to witness in detail the gruesome imagery put against a backdrop of stunning vistas and otherwise undisturbed life on the plantation.
It’s simply amazingly horrifying to see how life simply goes on while people are dying, being abused, or relentlessly tortured. The camera does not look away from the macabre, which we can notice the minute Solomon is kidnapped and beaten continuously for good five minutes. I would go as far as to say that “12 Years a Slave” turns into porn with the way imagery is delivered, the detail with which it’s presented, along with the numbing onslaught on the viewer’s senses. There’s no other reason, other than disturbing the audience, to show a single take of a person suffocating for 10 minutes, or a young girl having flesh flayed off her back by being continually and tirelessly flogged. In the end, it is really powerful to witness this horror additionally blown out by the authenticity of the source material. In combination with otherwise beautiful shots and very compelling acting, this film becomes nothing short of unforgettable.
The only nit-pick I’d have about “12 Years a Slave” would have to do with the film’s premise as a whole of taking a free man and putting him in a situation that is completely alien to him. Sure, I can’t argue with the source material, but it could be all too easy to dismiss the film in its entirety based on Solomon Northup’s relatability as a character. For some, it might be easier to identify with Solomon and root for him, because he doesn’t belong in slavery, which in itself is a problem, because none of those people belong there. It’s difficult to look past the main character and notice the countless thousands of people born in shackles never to taste freedom, because we get so invested in Solomon’s personal ordeal. Nevertheless, I personally didn’t have a problem with that, but more so, I found the lead character to be more of a vessel to show all those atrocities, as he was himself shocked to witness and live them. It does remain an easy target for potential attack, and we all know how easy it is to discredit a film.
While this particular piece of cinema has its own share of problems, it does not change the fact that it is a quite unique cinematic experience. I think Steve McQueen (whose other work I have yet to see) purposefully and relentlessly uses everything he has at his disposal to have this film become the landmark piece in the discussion on slavery and racial abuse in American history. With the visuals, photography, performances, and even the score, “12 Years a Slave” will surely be held as the definitive take on the shameful chapter in the history of America.
I certainly did not expect “12 Years a Slave” to show the day-to-day life in servitude in such a harsh detail. There’s no dancing around the issue here, and the film does not waste a minute to sugar-coat the brutality, or look away from the violence, that for once was shown with gruesome attention to detail. I realize that in the age of political correctness and apologetic stances of white societies, whose ancestors were complicit in this travesty telling the truth might be difficult, but I think it needs to be said that the reason “12 Years a Slave” is allowed to go to such lengths in portraying slavery for what it was, has to do with the film-maker being black himself. Before you say anything, let me add that certain problems require specific sensitivity, and a degree of personal engagement in the subject matter. It does sounds like racial profiling, but Ron Howard, or Steven Spielberg would never create a film like that. In fact, if you look at the latter film-maker’s last piece – “Lincoln” – you’ll know exactly what I mean here.
Granted, you could throw “The Butler” in response to my claim, a film I was thoroughly disappointed by, as it was nothing more than an Oscar bait with no soul of its own, that instead of adding to the discussion on the repercussions of racial segregation in America, muddled everything with the over-extended scope and volume of sub-plots. In the end, I have to add that in order to make “12 Years a Slave” look as it does now versus what it could be in somebody else’s hands (i.e. a run-of-the-mill uplifting biopic geared towards bagging big awards), a pivotal prerequisite for Steve McQueen was to have a huge pair of balls. He didn’t have much to lose, as he is still ‘making it’ in the industry, and he clearly didn’t care about the statuettes he could collect for his film. Ironically enough, the fact “12 Years a Slave” pulls all the stops and aims at evoking discomfort and (in some cases well-earned) guilt might just help McQueen get recognition as a film-maker.
I don’t know if “12 Years a Slave” was the best film of the year, but it is an important one. I’d say it needs to be seen by everyone, so that the discussion is kept alive instead of being eventually swept under the rug of ancient history. None of the holocausts in our history should be allowed to be forgotten and we finally need to see thing for what they were. “12 Years a Slave” is most definitely not an easy film to sit through, but it might be what is needed to finally have an adult conversation about this particular chunk of the history of mankind.