This was not an easy movie for me to sit through. Then again, when has a film by British director Steve McQueen ever been? McQueen has only released three feature length films to date, and none of the films are easy watches. His first film, Hunger, won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an award given to the best film by a first time director. That film detailed the IRA hunger strikes in the Maze Prison, which depicted probing, prisoners refusing to bathe, and some disgustingly accurate depictions of starvation. His next film, Shame, invited snickers with all the rampant nudity and hardcore sex scenes. What the viewer got was a dark depiction of sex addiction and probably one of the bleakest films of the year.
12 Years a Slave is based on a true story. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York, with his family. He travels to Washington D.C. for a job offer, but soon finds himself kidnapped and sent south to be sold as a slave. For over a decade, Northup has to survive in shackles, hiding his ability to read and write while toiling away in terrible conditions and enduring constant abuse. The film follows Northup as he lives with two separate slave owners, the kind and dignified Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the brutal and racist Epps (Michael Fassbender, the star of Hunger and Shame).
McQueen’s directorial style is very fascinating to me, even with only three films to judge him by. Despite this, there are two major factors that draw me to McQueen’s films: long shots and brutality. I’m a fan of long shots, as you might have gathered from my review of Gravity,but McQueen’s are always a lot more nuanced. Hunger had a seventeen minute uncut shot of two people talking before cutting to a close-up that lasts for almost ten minutes. Shame followed Fassbender running down several New York City blocks and showed us nearly every minute of a dinner date. In 12 Years a Slave, the tradition continues, and it ties in nicely with his choice to show the ugly side of humanity.
12 Years a Slave is not a shy movie. It does not try to sugarcoat what it shows on screen, and McQueen definitely wants to make it clear what happened during the slave era. Probably the best example of this was the whipping of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). The audience was very vocal in their responses to events in the film. When the audience saw Patsey’s whipped back, there were many murmurs of discomfort in the theater.
The film has a very large cast, one filled with many actors I like and respect. Ejifor, Nyong’o, and Fassbender are all people I think will be recognized heavily during award season. Additionally, the film surprised me because some very well-known actors appear very briefly, such as Michael Kenneth Williams, Quvenzhane’ Wallis, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, and Alfre Woodard. Even Brad Pitt appear for, at most, two scenes and then is gone. It’s an odd choice, but it’s a choice I enjoy because even though their time on screen is short, their roles leave substantial marks on the film.
Overall, this is probably one of the best films of the year. It’s not an easy film to sit through, and it’s definitely not a movie you can show in high school history classes, but it’s such a marvelous piece of art. It’s visceral, but it’s one I don’t think you can forget so easily.