At this point in time, the “slavery was bad” Oscar-bait film has become cliché, but that doesn’t mean they’re not effective (see also: my heartfelt sobbing during Lincoln which culminated in “I just love democracy.”). But what I particularly liked about 12 Years a Slave was the way it took the oft-trod nature of these stories and turned them into a Shakespearean archetype. Rather than going through the gritty realism I’d assumed I was in for, the movie plays out like an epic tragedy, made only somewhat lighter by the ending that is implied in that title.
12 Years A Slave is DEFINITELY a story of American slavery, but it’s both more than and less than that. The story of Solomon Northup is not the story of American slavery – it’s the story of a man living in an idealized New York who realizes exactly how fragile his freedom is. Northup can read and write and plot the hell out of an aquatic root, but it’s that knowledge of what freedom is that really separates him from his fellow slaves. His experience is not their experience, and it’s one of my favorite parts of 12 Years a Slave that it doesn’t make a universal case about slavery and the African American experience. This allows it to bypass the “but what’s the point” trap that I feel like a lot of these carefully removed examples of racism fall into. The point is how fragile all of our freedom is.
The dialogue in this movie is fantastic, and also serves to take us out of our typical version of this story. With its affected Shakespearean lilt (ringing out gorgeously from the mouths of mostly British actors talking in mostly-southern accents*, yet another layer of artifice), the film plays out more like Prospero enduring his Tempests. This is where the movie is MOST successful, bringing the power of the dialogue into congruence with the stark necessity of the imagery. Steve McQueen’s powerful, go-for-broke visual naturalism contrasts with the high rhetoric of the script’s words and leads to scenes filled with heartbreak and raw emotion. It also elevates the performances to a new level.
Michael Fassbender, as the story’s main antagonist (if you can call a man so broken an antagonist), definitely has the story’s meatiest role and he does a damn fine job sinking his teeth into it. He is particularly adept at finding the internal truth beneath the high-falluting talk. Additionally, not a enough nice things can also be said for Sarah Paulson, who plays his wife as emotionally turbulent and trapped, without ever really expecting audience sympathy.
Lupita Nyong’o, playing Patsy, a slave with whom Fassbender forms a terrible obsession, is a particular high point and brings a level of desperation and nuance to the role that really adds to her scenes. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the film’s lead, is great, but I have some issues with the character. So much of Solomon relies on us seeing through his performance as a slave, and I felt like we only got glimpses into his head at the very end. It made the ending heartbreaking and beautiful, but it is one of the main reasons behind my more pressing criticism of the movie.
And here it is, the moment I admit that while 12 Years a Slave is a really good and interesting movie, buoyed up by great performances and a unique take on the material, it’s also way too damn long. And not in a way that makes you really feel Solomon’s pain (although there is an absolutely fantastic shot in the middle of the movie that perfectly exemplifies this idea); rather it’s long in a “look at all these amazing actors and their great performances – fuck we cant cut ANY of them” kind of way. Partially this is due to the fact that while Solomon undoubtedly changes a lot throughout the course of the film, his character arch is still rather static – that is, he goes from a good man and loving father to a good man and loving father who has seen the worst parts of humanity. It’s not that this is a bad storyline – it could just be shorter.
The only other criticism I have of the movie is the overuse of famous faces, or rather the use of one particular famous face. I guess I understand that when Brad Pitt is producing your movie, and wants to play a minor, albeit pivotal, role in it, you say yes. So I can’t fault anyone (not Director Steve McQueen and not Producer Brad Pitt) for thinking it was a good idea to make Pitt’s face the face of Solomon’s salvation. But using the world’s biggest movie star in the role removes from a pivotal story beat the element of ambiguity that had so successfully pervaded the rest of Solomon’s trials, and ultimately proves distracting, right when the focus of the film should have been squarely on Ejiofor and Fassbender’s final confrontation.
Overall, though, 12 Years A Slave is an astounding movie, the type of film that the end of the calendar year was made for. It will be up for all sorts of awards this season, and it will win a whole bundle of them, because it is a complicated dive with a high level of difficulty. That it only measures up to 90% of its promise – that it had so much good footage that they couldn’t bare to cut some of it – only speaks to how interesting the film is.
*With the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch, who, God love him, cant do a southern accent.