Film Review: 12 Years A Slave

Written by Michael Dequina
Jan 2014

 

Reviewing Steve  McQueen’s: 12 Years A Slave

12yearsaslave_collage

12 YEARS A SLAVE is not the first (and most certainly will not be the last) film to tackle the subject of America’s shameful history of slavery, but it often feels like the first real one. Illustrating that point vividly and succinctly is a scene, roughly before the halfway mark, where an attempted lynching of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) by some especially despicable slave handlers is interrupted by a superior–but just exactly that, interrupted, not freed. Once the would-be killers are chased away, Solomon is left alone to dangle on literal tiptoes, the camera keeping an unflinching, unwavering eye to his second-to-second struggle to maintain something close to steady balance, as intensely focused on him as all those immediately around him intensely turn a wilfully oblivious eye, continuing about their business.

As shown in his previous films HUNGER and SHAME, such is director Steve McQueen’s remote, rather clinical style, where there is no semblance of basic comfort, much less manipulative sentimentality, in evidence, only unadorned observation–all the better to register, in a manner never quite captured on film before, the raw, true horror of the inhumanity of slavery. Supporting the point and compounding the effect is the specific true story of Solomon, a free black man who finds himself captured and sold into slavery in the South. But furthermore, so does the intrinsically outside-looking-in approach that could only come from a non-American (British) director. Not only doesn’t McQueen soften the harsh, cut-too-deep edges of John Ridley’s script, but he grasps how the contrast with the early glimpses of his success and value as a functioning, integrated member of society points up just how needlessly, absurdly counterproductive forced servitude is beyond its shallow, ego-boosting race-based entitlement and power trips (embodied, in various degrees of condescension and/or cruelty, by slave handler/owner characters played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and, most notably, McQueen’s muse Michael Fassbender).

Similarly contrasting, and rather effectively so, is that between McQueen’s overall cerebral detachment and the warmth and empathy of his actors, who also bring their own fierce intelligence to the plate. Ejiofor’s finely etched portrayal of Solomon is neither a passive victim nor a movie world wish-fulfilment hero but something far more complex, far more realistic, far more relatable. While he does fight back, particularly in the early going, the consequences he inevitably faces and endures force him to take–befitting the educated human being that he is–a more carefully studied, strategic approach, never not looking for any way out but also falling in line just enough to simply survive in order to see another second and with it the possibility of another chance to break free. But even as one can always see the courageous thinking going on behind Ejiofor’s eyes, coming through just as powerfully is his very real fear. Similarly complicated 12yas_still_Patsyare depictions of other slaves Solomon encounters throughout, from Adepero Oduye’s young mother who understandably if too easily gives in to her personal pain and grief to, most especially, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o’s devastating turn as Patsey, whose productivity in the fields and (for lack of a better word, relatively speaking of course) favoured status from the Fassbender character masks her ever-consuming internal existential hell.

So committed–boldly, and perhaps for many too discomfortingly so–is McQueen to his uncompromising vision that not even the closing text cards offer much in the way of simple answers about events that follow the depicted screen time, much less anything passing for comforting words. And that is how it should be, for there should be no solace in how now, centuries down the line, the fallout and lingering issues left from this period are still very much felt–and that they may not be so blatantly obvious and thus too easy and tempting to overlook underscores how necessary McQueen’s cinematic jolt to the system is.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE

IN CINEMAS TODAY – FIND YOUR LOCAL CINEMA SHOWING THE FILM HERE:
http://eonetickets.com/gb/12yearsaslave/

Read more audience reactions to the film here 


Read Michael Dequina’s other reviews at:

http://themoviereport.com
http://twitter.com/twotrey23
http://facebook.com/twotrey