Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave
 Dir. Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch

It is difficult to know where to begin with the historical baggage of 12 Years a Slave. It is that rare thing; a film about a historical moment that feels urgent; a vital cinematic account of a hideous era, and the voice of a past no one yearns to recall. McQueen adapted the true story of Solomon Northup, an educated black free man from New York, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Thus, McQueen worked from an honest, firsthand portrait of the horrors of slavery, and he does his utmost to serve the sickening reality of the situation, including a serious and requisite restraint of overly decorative stylistic flourishes. Here, where the subject matter and the performances are central, the camera works to be self-effacing; humbled to capture the objective brutality Solomon witnesses and is subject to. Some critics feel differently, suggesting a certain trivial artfulness in McQueen's approach, but I find his camera to be mostly subdued, his use of crane shots and long takes melding into the flow of the narrative. Much is conveyed in sideways glances and looks; the shocked admiration on a young slave's face as he sees Solomon's finely-dressed family, being served by a white shop owner. Frequently, brief, elementary guilt or compassion will register on culpable white faces, only to be waved away again as a persistently buzzing fly might. A long medium close-up on Ejiofor's face allows us to read into it what we will, a wounded but still prideful gaze into the middle distance that speaks volumes more than one could hope to say out loud. 

The images that remain with me are these; naked, shivering black bodies lined up and presented for inspection; a body suspended by lynching rope, with nary a toe balanced on the earth to keep from expiring; a cut-crystal decanter lurching through a room and landing with the force of a dumbbell on an innocent skull.  12 Years a Slave is a brutally affecting, devastating film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a poignant and subtle actor; his silence and his gaze mirroring his and our internal disgust. Michael Fassbender is simply too terrible, an appalling and real representation of the ignorant hubris and essential inhumanity of the slave-owning class. 

    This is a nearly impossible comparison to make, but briefly: I wrote not too long ago that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained - a B-movie slavery revenge Western - allows for some catharsis for its audience against the evils of slavery, in seeing those individuals punished. The brilliant, painful honesty of 12 Years is in is refusal to allow us such catharsis or relief; it is a relief that was, and remains, impossible. The uncompromising nature of McQueen's vision refuses us any semblance of a Hollywood narrative in terms of evasion of violence, or revenge, or a genuine sense that the cruelty will end. Solomon may have escaped, and McQueen gives us his survival, but we are left in no doubt of the extreme rarity of his escape, or of the precariousness of his existence for the rest of his free life. 

    What we are left with is the hopeless and terrible certainty of the suffering majority, of their endless toil, their ignominious deaths, and worst of all - of the legitimacy of the whole damnable system.  As I left the cinema, I felt an overpowering helplessness. There is no way to fix, solve, or change the past, or the shameful, murderous legal legitimacy of chattel slavery for over a century. Too often has it been whitewashed, avoided, or softened, and its political and socioeconomic legacy exists in the United States today, whether the nation can acknowledge it or not. 150 years on, McQueen has created a work of astounding power, simplicity, and savagery. It makes us pause to remember and to mourn for the holocaust that was American slavery - to feel the helpless shame and anger - and to know that there is nothing to be done. 

Showing now at the Broadway Cinema


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