12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o
Length: 134 minutes
Country: USA/UK

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a film which needed to be made and, now that it’s here, I really want to like it more than I do. I have no doubt that it will be, and already has been, an important film. It’s embarrassing how spineless Hollywood has been in addressing the ‘peculiar institution’, generally sweeping the subject under the carpet in their period dramas or only having the nerve to observe slavery from the perspective of a white character (it’s okay, Lincoln, I still love you). 12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, pulls no punches in displaying the physical trauma slavery inflicted on its victims and the twisted, dispiriting system which kept it all running. As a visceral experience, I can say without hesitation that this film succeeds but while it’s sure to change attitudes to slavery in cinema, I’m not sure it has much to add to the conversation on slavery itself. I urge you to go see this film and make up your own mind about it but, if I’m being honest, 12 Years a Slave feels to me like a good film doing an excellent impression of a great film.

That the film’s lead, Solomon Northup (author of the film’s source material), was not born into slavery makes him a fitting conduit for modern audiences. Solomon was an educated free man who was drugged by two conmen and sold into slavery. The film follows Solomon through his period in captivity, revealing with each scene a new facet of this other America. This is the sort of story which is practically guaranteed to get an emotional response from its audience so long as the actors know what they’re doing – and there’s barely a performer in this film who doesn’t absolutely nail their role. Chiwetel Ejiofor has a demanding lead role and he knocks it out of the park with a subtly captivating turn. There is an extended take near the film’s end where Ejiofor stares directly into the camera and you truly believe that this is a man who has absorbed more physical and psychological torment than you can ever imagine. Lupita Nyong’o is similarly stunning in her agonising feature-film debut as a fellow slave who falls victim to their master’s monstrously confused affection. Other highlights in a cast stocked with familiar faces include Benedict Cumberbatch as a paradoxically humane slave owner and a perfectly unlikeable Paul Dano.

The film rarely seems to expand upon this history lesson by addressing in much depth any of its wider implications.

Unfortunately, while Steve McQueen is clearly a talented director, I can’t help but feel that he’s a little out of his depth. On a visual level, this is an extremely pretty film, even when it’s at its most unpleasant. The problem is that McQueen frequently seems more concerned with evoking profundity than actually being profound. His often highly calculated imagery is technically very impressive and sometimes heartrending but usually communicates surprisingly little about slavery, American history, race or the human spirit, as if all these things take a backseat to McQueen letting us all know how much of an auteur he is. There’s a cold formality about much of the film which occasionally comes across as contrived to me and while the film is admirably free of cheap sentiment, it also shies away from any extensive analysis of the potentially fascinating psyches of any one of its characters. The audience is even denied a developed insight into the life which Solomon led before his enslavement, and there is very little sense of the passing of time in captivity (if it weren’t for the title and the final scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Solomon was only a slave for a few months). The film seems more interested in studying institutionalised slavery as a terrifying mechanism for getting things done, which treats the slaves as mere cogs in the machine. We certainly get an uncomfortable sense of the crushingly perfect system put in place which can even confine to a life of slavery a man who is, in a legal sense, free. However, the film rarely seems to expand upon this history lesson by addressing in much depth any of its wider implications. Overall, while I’m sure many will appreciate McQueen’s dispassionate, impersonal style, it feels slightly pretentious to me – and perhaps even a little exploitative – even if it does work on a basic level.

It has been suggested that when Schindler’s List hit cinemas in 1993, Stanley Kubrick, who had been trying since the ‘70s to create his own Holocaust film, was privately relieved that he had an excuse to delay his creation. Ever the perfectionist, Kubrick’s preparation for the project is reported to have been an increasingly distressing experience as he approached the conclusion that no one film can truly express the full extent of the horror of such an atrocity. Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave are both ambitious films which seem to wisely acknowledge that their respective subjects may well be beyond human comprehension and thus they avoid making any insultingly reductive statements. But it’s one thing not to attempt to give definitive answers and another not to even raise questions. What makes Spielberg’s film the far more emotionally effective work for me is the way it manages to take this sadness at the inability to fully encapsulate its tragedy and turn it into a grounding emotion, as if the film is constantly asking its audience, ‘What is there to say about this? How can we possibly do all these victims justice?’ There are undoubtedly moments where 12 Years a Slave successfully achieves this and they’re among the most powerful moments of the film but, in contrast to Schindler’s List, McQueen self-consciously oversees events with very un-Spielbergian clinical detachment. His handling of this approach is competent but, in terms of the intellectual heft I feel it requires, he’s no Kubrick. As a nightmarish journey through the most disgraceful chapter in American history, this is impressive stuff and the mere fact that this film exists is sure to spark some interesting discussions. I just wish the film itself had a little more to say.

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