12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
It’s been a funky process watching video artist-cum-feel-bad auteur Steve McQueen’s storytelling evolve, over the course of three features, into a relatively mainstream vernacular. Whereas Hunger transformed the self-destruction of an Irish hunger striker’s body into a treatise on class politics—a war film concerning fewer than a dozen people—Shame was Spielbergian by comparison. McQueen’s panache for unflinching camerawork reached its ugliest conclusion in equating his anonymous sex-addict hero’s desperate lunge into homosexuality with rockbottom. While McQueen continues to tangle with laudably unfriendly issues and ideas, the vibrancy with which his films attack them sometimes betrays a desire to “go there” without properly developed conclusions, resulting in work that can, at worse, feel much deeper than it actually is.
Enter 12 Years A Slave. Whatever you’ve heard about this movie is probably accurate: it’s gorgeously shot, unbearably hard to watch, magnificently acted—a star-studded period piece with just one CGI-augmented vista, and a dominating lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Starring as Solomon Northrup, a real-life free man who was duped and kidnapped into antebellum slavery, Ejiofor displays an astonishing range of contradictory feelings as a character trapped in one of humanity’s worst waking nightmares. The expectation that Solomon will “wake up”—that is, that McQueen will jump ahead in time—figures gamely into the screenplay’s continued disposal of any glimmer of hope for the audience. Jostled from one plantation to the next (all horrifying, with varying degrees of white conscience embodied by their owners), Solomon’s dozen years in bondage have a flow that’s linear to the point of abstraction. There is no countdown to freedom, no progress bar. McQueen and his makeup crew age the contours of Ejiofor’s face so subtly and consistently that the inevitable before/after moment is both mindblowing and emotionally devastating.
John Ridley’s screenplay uses pain and suffering the same way action movies use gunfire: trickling into Solomon’s odyssey incrementally, building to a moment that implicates nearly all parties (including the audience) in its psychosexual pathology without underlining its own significance. McQueen’s gift for capping his most brutal moments—including Solomon’s first beating—with quiet reveals (bloodied smocks, shredded black flesh) coagulates their power without feeling like cheap punctuation. But if you embrace 12 Years A Slave as a kind of Oscar-season pipe bomb—which I choose to do, as McQueen claims he chose to make a film on slavery first, then began reading about Northrup—its politics are sadly compromised by the appearance of Brad Pitt. Pitt’s Plan B effectively guaranteed the film’s production; in exchange for 12 Years A Slave’s moral courage, Pitt ekes himself out a tiny but crucial cameo as the first white man to display any, tidily handing Solomon the keys to freedom before vanishing like the globetrotting blonde movie-messiah he has become.
Opens October 18