12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man and professional violinist from New York who, in 1841, gratefully accepted an offer of employment from two men, claiming to be fellow artists and members of a traveling circus. The morning after a night of fine dining and wining with the pair, Solomon awoke to a nightmare – discovering that he had been deceived, drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Unable to find any free person who might listen to his protests – or brave enough to risk their own safety by aiding him – Solomon experienced humiliation, physical brutality and even unexpected kindness, before he became the property of Mr. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a slave owner who prided himself on his ability to break the spirit of any rebellious servant on his plantation. However, even when faced with such insurmountable horror, a soul as strong and dignified as Solomon’s could not be shattered.
Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and scripted by John Ridley (Red Tails), 12 Years a Slave is a well-crafted film that uses the topic of slavery in the pre-Civil War U.S. as a means for ruminating on the human condition. However, it fails to make a clear-cut statement about the slavery issue or provide new insight on that dark chapter in American history. And thus, because the film doesn’t blink an eye – when it comes to portraying the cruelty/violence committed against blacks in the Antebellum South – there are times when it feels like (put bluntly) the equivalent of “torture porn” made for arthouse moviegoers.
In the past, McQueen has also used larger subjects (the IRA Hunger Strike, modern sex disorders) to explore how what a person does and/or what others do to a person’s body affects their spirit. That question is again his true focus with 12 Years a Slave, but the decision to use Solomon Northup’s tale as a way to further explore the issue proves less effective at best, highly questionable at worst. As a result, the scenes that depict the dehumanizing nature of slavery are genuinely disturbing to watch, yet the film as a whole fails to offer the kind of personal and informative character study that would’ve made all the suffering portrayed more meaningful (from a discussion standpoint).
Rest assured, 12 Years a Slave is as gorgeously shot and visually-composed as McQueen’s past films; his frequent cinematographer Sean Bobbitt photographs the 19th-century South as a sweltering hell – characterized by fiery sunsets, treacherous bogs and sparse cotton fields – populated by Solomon, other slaves and their oppressors. Meanwhile, the editing choices made by McQueen and his trusted editor, Joe Walker, favor subtly when it comes to spacing out shots and/or scenes that parallel one another (for thematic effect). Similarly, much of Hans Zimmer’s score is quiet and gentle – save for an early sequence (where Solomon is transported South by ferry), when the score becomes as over-the-top ominous as would befit a horror movie.
Indeed, 12 Years a Slave often unfolds as a historical horror show, as Solomon encounters many a monstrous Southerner who is all too eager to hurt, rape and/or murder any black person that crosses their path. Problem is, Ridley’s screenplay paints the story of Solomon Northup in overly broad strokes and fails to bring much depth to either the heroes, victims or villains. The end result is a narrative that skips too quickly through instances that offer complex insight; and, on occasion, almost seems to relish the moments that show the different slaves getting beaten, raped, flayed and hung (hence the “torture porn” label).
Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon is graceful and sympathetic, yet is undercut because the character is too thinly-written. No doubt, everyone who goes to see the film will cheer for Solomon to escape and reunite with his family, but Ridley’s script fails to dig beneath his surface – as a human being and artist – and reveal who he truly is, as a real person (not just a figure to be idolized). Similarly, Fassbender brings a steely gaze and unhinged gusto to the role of Mr. Epps, yet the antagonist – a malevolent scoundrel who loves to torture his slaves and lusts for his hardest-working servant, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) – is not written as being much deeper than your average Disney movie villain.
Several of the film’s most promising scenes involve the reputable supporting cast – Paul Giamatti as a slave auctioneer, Benedict Cumberbatch as Solomon’s first master, Paul Dano as an especially-punchable slave foreman and Garret Dillahunt as a heavy drinker forced to work alongside the slaves he once ruled over – but their flimsy characterizations and the script’s lack of payoff make their screen time feel a bit like afterthoughts (not helpful additions to the central battle of wills between Ejiofor and Fassbender).
Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s wife, Alfre Woodard as a well-cared-for slave mistress and Nyong’o as the abused Patsey are just never given the chance to fully explore how women in their positions might have behaved – and, more importantly, why they act the way they do – in spite of sincere performances from all three actresses (especially Nyong’o). Finally, many a recognizable face pops ups for a scene or cameo, including Scoot McNairy (Argo), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire) and Brad Pitt as a progressive-minded Canadian; with the exception of Pitt, though, these roles aren’t really worthy of the talent behind them.
12 Years a Slave avoids feeling like cheap exploitation, but Ridley’s script reduces the evils of slavery to a concept that isn’t challenging and lets viewers disconnect from the atrocities portrayed onscreen, without having to ask themselves the really hard questions (like “Could I have behaved like that, if I’d been alive back then?”). McQueen’s storytelling approach is more accessible here than with his previous films, yet it’s also too removed and is partly to blame for making the viewing experience a punishing, yet ultimately hollow one.
In the end, it’s best to approach 12 Years a Slave with the expectation that you are going to watch a well-made meditation about a man who endures a terrifying journey (right out of a Franz Kafka novel) – not a film that really adds so much to the ongoing conversation about slavery.
For those who are still undecided, here is the trailer for 12 Years a Slave:
12 Years a Slave is now playing in a limited theatrical release in the U.S., but will continue to expand nationwide over the forthcoming weeks. It is 134 minutes long and Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.