Watching 12 Years a Slave is a tough experience for any film viewer. It’s not because of the subject material or the intensity in how it’s presented. There’s nothing in this film that we haven’t seen before, most recently in Django Unchained and more famously with Roots. Slavery was a horrific thing and 12 Years depicts in it the vileness that it was in but let’s be honest. A film like this has the same problem a Holocaust film does: the setting itself lends itself to such gravitas that many film makers go a little light because they have the general setting to generate dramatic tension with.
It’s almost a lazy film-maker’s device, to set a film during a time of such horrific times. Steve McQueen properly takes this setting and adds his own visceral intensity to it, thus taking what could be a film that makes people cry just because it’s about slavery and turns it into something more. 12 Years a Slave is about a man being profoundly wronged in an era where being so was horrifying. That’s what makes this film a near masterpiece and and a no-brainer for at least one Oscar nomination this year.
The film follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in the North of some means. He’s educated and well-dressed, a family man who plays the violin with some excellence. With his wife and children out of town visiting her family he’s given an offer he can’t refuse: significant cash to play violin for some entertainers from upstate New York down to Washington, D.C, with the promise of return fare. It’s too much for him to turn down, of course, and it turns out they’re not quite the entertainers they think he is.
Sold into slavery after being drugged, Northup endures 12 years in chains and suffers unconscionably while doing so. The film details his life as a slave, starting with a kind master (Benedict Cumberbatch) to his next (Michael Fassbender) whose cruelty comes from either drink, faith or some sort of internal demon. Or all three.
The film works because of two things: the ability of McQueen to not just use his setting to gin up drama and Ejiofor’s ability to bring such a profound character experience to the screen.
McQueen’s ability to use visceral intensity is his greatest asset in this film. He’s used it before, to transform a tale of sex addiction into Shame, and he transforms what could be an ordinary film tinged with the horrifying into something grander. Most directors would be content to just show the evils of slavery, etc, and let them do the work in the same way a Holocaust film shows gas chambers: the image is enough for many. McQueen shoots the big moments of the film, the ones that will make you uncomfortable in your seat, with an intensity that matches the situation. This isn’t just showing Northup getting whipped for the sake of getting that moment in; the visual intensity of the moment makes it feel that much more powerful. It’s not in how he tells the story that matters; it’s the way he does it.
Ejiofor has long been among a number of black actors from England who have experienced some measure of fame but nothing anywhere near commiserate with their actual talent. He’s in that same boat that a guy like Idris Alba is; he’s a very talented actor who just needs that one role to push them over the top. This hopefully is it for him, career wise, because it’s hard to imagine he tops it artistically.
This is a once in a lifetime performance from an actor who’s been waiting to give it. Everything he’s done, from being incredibly undersung in Serenity and Kinky Boots to solid supporting roles in films like American Gangster, have prepared him for a powerful, blistering performance. It takes a lot to be able to endure what Northup did; this could be a showy role but Ejiofor has a quiet intensity in the role. How Solomon changes throughout the decade plus of his ordeal, the way he changes as a man, is extraordinary through Ejiofor’s eyes. It’s character evolution in a subtle way.
This could be a showy role for a showy actor and Ejiofor deliberately underplays it in many aspects. This is about subtlety and nuance, not big moments that scream “give me awards now,” and it works with McQueen’s style. This is about a man enduring something no one should have to, trying to adapt in order to be able to see his family again, and the way Ejiofor adapts the character as the film moves on is impressive. At the end it’s almost a completely different character, in spirit, but you don’t notice because of the subtle changes over the film’s running time.
The only problem with the film is it’s extended cameo style of using substantial stars. Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti have crucial moments but are such big names that it takes away from their effectiveness. It becomes a “spot the star” type of feature more than anything else. It’s one thing to have someone like Pitt in a film; it’s another to have him show up randomly for a small role and then be unseen for the rest of the film. It’s distracting on a number of levels.
12 Years a Slave is easily one of the most uncomfortable films to watch of 2013. That owes due to the power of its story than its subject matter. Come Oscar time expect this to be a front runner.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: John Ridley based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup
Notable Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbander, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Adepero Oduye, Brad Pitt