By earning the Best Picture Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards — the highest honor given by his peers — director Steve McQueen has cemented his place in film history. This is a tremendous honor but it is even more remarkable that his film “12 Years a Slave” has reached so many people. While the awards (the film also won Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) are nice, it has an emotional resonance that transcends a gold statue. This is an exceptional and truthful work of art that shows one of the ugliest times in America’s past.
Steve McQueen is a director who was unfamiliar to mainstream audiences prior to Oscar night. This British filmmaker’s early work appealed to a more art house crowd due to its explicit content and controversial subject matter, movies like “Hunger” (2008) and “Shame” (2011). Addressing topics like IRA hunger strikes and sex addiction means your films will only get a very limited release in smaller venues. “12 Years a Slave” was an opportunity for McQueen to tell a story that would appeal to his fellow black moviegoers. He must have been pleasantly surprised to find that the whole world was listening and wanted to learn about the journey of a slave with an indomitable spirit.
“12 Years a Slave” is a drama based on the memoir of a man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black musician from Saratoga, New York. He is happily married and the father of two small children, but most importantly, he is free. In 1841 his tranquil life is interrupted by two men who offer Northup a job playing his fiddle in a traveling circus. As a kindhearted gentleman who believes his ‘employers’ are too, he accepts. Shortly after a trip to Washington D.C., he is drugged and wakes up in a holding cell for new slaves. He is beaten and placed on a boat bound for Louisiana.
In New Orleans, Northup loses not only his name but any hope of ever seeing his family again. He is now being addressed as “Platt” by Freeman (Paul Giamatti), an abusive salesman who parades slaves around like cattle in front of potential buyers. One of these customers is a well-groomed white man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who purchases Northup/Platt along with a distraught mother. For the remainder of the film, Northup’s life is portrayed as a series of episodic events reflecting the harsh and dehumanizing life of a slave in the antebellum South.
Things become the most dire when Northup is sent to work for Edwin Epps. Actor Michael Fassbender is menacing as the lustful plantation owner who rules with an iron fist. Most people may know him from the super-hero reboot “X-Men: First Class” when he played the villain, Magneto. In “12 Years a Slave” he is working with director Steve McQueen for the third time. The trust that exists between director and actor reminds me of the Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro collaborations of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Fassbender understands how to play an antagonist without overacting or giving a one-note performance. Most of the time his eyes are his greatest weapon, staring down someone with such intensity that a look alone might just cut that person in half.
If Fassbender is adept at eye-acting in only a few scenes, Chiwetel Ejiofor should receive the most credit for his ability to convey the entire tone of the film in every close-up. Filmmaker David Mamet, who has worked with Ejiofor previously, has compared him to Henry Fonda in the way they “didn’t add anything to the script except the truth of their own soul.” Mamet is referring to Ejiofor’s performance in the jiu-jitsu movie “Redbelt” (2008), but in “12 Years a Slave”, Northup’s fight is on a much bigger scale. On a southern plantation the only struggle that exists is between a black person’s sense of self-worth and the oppressive world that seeks to subjugate him.
This inner battle is fought by others like Patsey, a field slave played by Lupita Nyong’o. Her trust in director Steve McQueen allowed her to become physically and emotionally naked on screen. As a result, she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, an impressive feat for a young women without much acting experience. Patsey, Northup and the other slaves pick cotton among vast southern landscapes where man’s evil is allowed to take root. The natural beauty of weeping willows, winding streams and lush green grass serves as a counterpoint to the ugliness of human cruelty.
I would like to recommend “12 Years a Slave” to everyone, but unfortunately I cannot. Should everyone watch this film? Yes. But the very reason you should see “12 Years a Slave” is precisely the reason it will turn some audience members away: its honest and brutal depiction of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Some critics have even compared its emotional intensity to that of “Schindler’s List.” If you want to see the highest caliber of contemporary filmmaking and you are emotionally capable of watching a movie like this, seek it out.
There is a commonly-held belief that dramas are important because they allow individual catharsis. Films like “12 Years a Slave” are necessary because they provide a cultural catharsis. They allow us to look evil in the face — through the medium of art — so we can begin to exorcise demons that have plagued American culture for decades. When we see movies such as this one, we can have a dialogue with our fellow man and hopefully color fades away. When we open lines of communication with other human beings, we can open up our souls to them, and that is a way to unite us all.