Writing a review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is not an easy task for me. For one thing, when I hear a film is “important,” I tend to react with immediate skepticism. What’s more the “gimmick” opening shot threw up a red flag and took me out of the flow of the action for the critical introduction of the main character. Strike one for McQueen and/or Editor Joe Walker.
But, that being said, I must say that every actor in this film gives a sterling performance, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead character Solomon Northrup, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch as different types of plantation owners, Lupita Nyong’o as a desperate slave and Paul Dano as a sniveling slave driver. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt creates spectacular images, Production Designer Adam Stockhausen has wonderful settings, Hans Zimmer’s music is superb as always and the real Northrup’s story is riveting.
Note, I said "story," not "script." What is this script about is the question. Is it about inhumanity? Survival? Those are the stuff of documentaries. And, indeed, 12 Years A Slave sometimes seems like a documentary or a polemic or a diatribe instead of a drama. A few scenes even seem a bit "posed," i.e., self-important.
Northrup is numbed by his experience of being torn by kidnappers from his existence as an upscale Northern free-man and being sold into Southern slavery. And, this numbness hardly changes throughout the course of the film.
Now, anyone who has ever been torn from a comfortable existence and thrown into, for example, war or prison can go numb and use that to survive until the experience is over. But, again, that makes for more compelling documenting, than for compelling drama. Here, our connection to the main character is that the audience, too, is forced to take on a bit of numbness to be able to sit through scenes of whipping and lynching. As good as this film is, don’t expect an entertainment. At one point, I likened it to the holocaust story Life Is Beautiful…without the laughs.
These criticisms aside, for anyone, like me, who is in to film, 12 Years A Slave is a must-see. If, however, you are an average viewer and see, at best, one film a month, I would suggest you go see The Butler, if you want, not only to see a great film, but to develop an understanding of the Black experience in America in the ‘20s through the ‘60s.
Despite my criticisms, 12 Years A Slave does get a 4 out of 5.
PS: After this grim adventure, I had to do something cheery. So, I went to see Carrie.