My achilles heel as a filmgoer has always been my ability to create unrealistic expectations for a highly anticipated movie. When 12 Years a Slave began making the festival rounds, earning glowing praise at each stop, I immediately took notice. Critics hailed it as a “game changer” and talked about it being a film experience that rivaled Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in its emotional impact. It instantly rocketed to the forefront of the Best Picture race and positioned itself as the film to beat during awards season. I visited all of my most trusted critics websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic which heaped plaudits on the production awarding it universal acclaim. I envisioned how the film would play out in my mind and I expected to experience one of the most moving and unflinching portraits of slavery in the history of the medium. When I finally did see 12 Years in the cinema I remember feeling strangely unmoved. I thought it was a very good movie that was handsomely mounted and powerfully acted but it wasn’t a masterpiece. Was I missing something? Did I allow my sky high expectations to mute what I had witnessed? I knew a second viewing would be essential before I could put my feelings on paper.
Flash forward 4 months later, 12 Years a Slave triumphed at the 86th Academy Awards taking home 3 gold statues including the coveted Best Picture trophy. A week later, it was released on home video. I immediately went to the Target near my apartment and purchased a copy. I watched it a second time from the comforts of home that evening. I thought to myself, now free from the expectations I had placed on it, I could appreciate the film for what it was instead of what I wanted it to be in my mind. Surprisingly, this second viewing did not clear up my feelings about this film and, in fact, I found more flaws this time around then in my initial viewing. What the Hell was going on? Have I become some curmudgeon, incapable of feeling what thousands of critics and audience members felt around the world? Perhaps, I need to let this film continue to simmer in my thoughts. Until then, I will try to explain my reasoning behind why I was left underwhelmed by this film. Please feel free to disagree with me, I welcome the dialogue.
In 1853, Solomon Northup released his memoir entitled Twelve Years a Slave. The work recounted his incredible story of surviving the antebellum south, toiling away on plantations under numerous masters both surprisingly genteel and incredibly cruel. What made Solomon’s tale all the more extraordinary was that he began his life as free man in Saratoga, New York. A well educated, soft spoken musician with a wife and two young children, Solomon was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he would endure a hellish existence that played out like a living nightmare. Director Steve McQueen uses Northup’s tale as a canvass to depict both a brutal, eye-opening account of slave life and an incredible story of survival from the depths of despair.
Now it may seem, based on my initial commentary, that I flat out disliked this movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, there is much that I admired about McQueen’s film starting with the director himself. I was first introduced to his work two years ago, when he released his riveting portrait of sex addiction, Shame, in 2011. I appreciated the way he challenged his audiences with difficult subject matter and never made them too comfortable. He dove headfirst into the darkest recesses of the human condition and managed to do so without the slightest whiff of exploitation. These comments also apply to 12 Years a Slave. Here is an American production that asks its audience to tackle the subject of slavery head on and without remorse, to acknowledge the past sins of our nation so that we may reach some semblance of catharsis. McQueen is an unblinking, nonjudgmental presence that observes unspeakable atrocities and leaves it to the audience to come to their own conclusions. However, it may be his more academic style that also left me so cold emotionally. I so desperately wanted to feel something during my viewing experience and it just never happened. Perhaps McQueen didn’t want to pander the audience with overt emotional manipulation. Either way, the film engaged my mind and left me with much to reflect on.
On the acting front there is, with one glaring exception, no fault to be found. Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of those actors who everyone recognizes but can’t recall his name, is magnificent as Northup. Playing a real life character who went from freedom to bondage and back again required Ejiofor to run the gamut of human emotions. Shock, confusion, anger, sadness, despair, he hits every nuance with subtlety and grace. What’s especially noteworthy is how he uses his face, and particularly his eyes, to express these emotions. McQueen elected, rightly I think, to forgo a voiceover narration in this film, requiring Ejiofor to portray much of what was written in Northup’s memoir without words. Viewing the film, you witness firsthand his triumph.
Ample praise also goes to McQueen regular Michael Fassbender for his volcanic portrayal of slave master Edwin Epps. Described as a “nigger breaker” he uses scripture as justification for his vicious treatment of slaves on his plantation. After he doles out a particularly vicious beating he states, “Sin? There is no sin here. Scripture dictates a man can do as he pleases with his property!” He stumbles around like a lunatic, often drunk, terrorizing all in his path. Epps also harbors a twisted affection for one of his slave girls, Patsey, whom he rapes on an almost nightly basis. Fassbender, with his piercing blue eyes, is ferocious in this portrayal. One of the most truly evil characters since Ralph Fiennes psychopathic Nazi commandant, Amon Goeth, graced the screen, Fassbender makes Epps compulsively watchable even at his most odious.
Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the aforementioned Patsey, is also a real find. The heartbreaking scene where she begs Solomon to end her life probably locked up her Oscar win. A luminescent talent, I look forward to where her career takes her. Sterling supporting work from Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Sarah Paulson also deserve praise. There is one weak link to be found acting wise, and its a big one. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Bass, the sympathetic Canadian laborer who ultimately helps Solomon obtain his freedom, is horribly miscalculated. This film is full of character actors that, while recognizable, are capable artists who disappear into their roles. Brad Pitt is a movie star, NOT a character actor. His appearance is distracting and has the effect of taking the audience out the film. You’re totally aware that it’s Brad Pitt, not Bass, that you’re watching. Im aware that Pitt is one of the producers of this film and he was instrumental in getting the film made, however, this doesn’t warrant him getting cast in a pivotal role. A bad mistake on the part of the filmmakers that is only magnified on repeated viewings.
One of the oddest things about discussing 12 Years a Slave is that, despite harrowing subject matter and content, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. Filmed on location in New Orleans on several former slave plantations, the crew nails the look of the antebellum south. Lots of wide angled shots of sun drenched fields, beautiful oak trees, Spanish moss blowing in the wind, peaceful bayous gorgeously magnified by the colors of the sun. Its almost as if the set is mocking the horrific events that took place there. McQueen himself stated that he wanted the visuals in this film to evoke the works of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, “When you think about Goya, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, ‘Look – look at this.’ So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what’s wrong with the image rather than looking at the image.” One such scene, in which Solomon is almost lynched, demonstrates this perfectly. He is drawn up but then dropped and left to dangle, using his tip-toes to avoid strangulation, he proceeds into a sort of grotesque ballet to stay alive. McQueen holds this shot for an agonizing period of time, the only soundtrack being the growing chirp of cicadas as the hours stretch into dusk. The beauty of the surroundings in this shot provide stark contrast to the man struggling for his life at its center.
Before I bring this piece to a close, I’d like to pose a few questions which I’ve been pondering since I watched this film. Firstly, if 12 Years a Slave is indeed the most realistic depiction of slavery in America, was it right to frame it through a survival story? Solomon Northup was an exceptional, intelligent man who could both read and write. He garnered preferential treatment from most of the masters he served under. Here was a man dropped into incredible circumstances and just as suddenly snatched out of the Hell fire. What about the many who weren’t so lucky to know true freedom? A similar criticism was launched at Spielberg and Schindler’s List. Is it a true depiction of the Holocaust to focus on 1100 Jews who miraculously survived versus the 6 million murdered? Perhaps to reach a mass audience, the filmmakers looked for an entry point where the public could grapple with the subject matter and not fall into despair. Secondly, why has it taken so long to bring a story like this to the screen? And why not from an American filmmaker? If you didn’t know, McQueen is British. Is the subject still too uncomfortable for us to confront? I don’t think so. Perhaps this film will open up the proverbial can of worms and push other filmmakers to have an honest dialogue about slavery as part of American history in their own works.
12 Years a Slave is a difficult film and should be applauded for the important questions it asks of it’s audience. We are asked to do a lot of heavy lifting as we sift through the dark maelstrom of the human condition. Powerfully acted and beautifully shot, it didn’t deliver the emotional haymaker I was expecting. It engaged my mind but didn’t touch my heart. A very good film, even necessary, but I stop short of calling it a masterpiece. Grade: B+