12 Years a Slave is a discomfiting film, but a clinical one. Director Steve McQueen has a style that inspects at arm’s length; intimacy is not his strong suit. Part of the challenge for him in making this film was to capture the intimacy of oppression, but instead we get a summary of it.
This is not to say that 12 Years a Slave is a bad film—it is still quite good—but it prefers to horrify you from a distance than to press your face to history’s true ugliness. This is a strange sensation that seems to come about by approaching the experiences of an individual as though they were universal; when the film addresses a diversity of experiences it’s most effective, but ultimately it is beholden to its centre.
That centre is Solomon Northup (an incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man and violinist with a wife and children who is abducted by men posing as circus workers and sold into slavery. Despite his protests, he is sold from owner to owner across 12 years before finally finding his way back to his home in Saratoga, New York.
While the finer details of Northup’s enslavement are never boring, they do fall somewhat prey to the curse of the biopic; that is, the outcome is right there in the title, and proceedings are inherently sapped of some of their drama. Thus many of the supporting characters—Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, Adepero Oduye as Eliza, Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps, and particularly Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw—become more fascinating as they exist as unknown quantities to the audience.
This is not something McQueen can help and he tries to mitigate it by making the film as beautiful as such a thing can be, the picturesque landscape of the American South standing at stark contrast to the unnatural viciousness enacted by the film’s white characters. One scene, involving a not-quite hanging, is one of the most intense, uncomfortable stretches of any film in recent memory, yet it still looks phenomenal.
It’s hard to say whether this is a positive or not. One on hand, it may seem like an indulgence of McQueen’s predilections as a visual artist—does such blatant artifice undermine the painful history the film discusses? On the other, it’s a fascinating contrast between the verdant cotton fields and the overseer whipping enslaved black bodies.
When 12 Years a Slave works best is when it casts its eye on the economy of flesh. When Freeman (Paul Giamatti) puts Solomon—whose name is changed to Platt—and other slaves on sale, we see him parading through his house with potential buyers in his wake, beating the chests and talking up the ‘features’ of statuesque black men like a sleazy car salesman.
We see Eliza separated from her children and told by the wife of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) that with some rest and something to eat she will forget about her children in no time. These people were not human to slave owners, they were viewed as beasts to be owned and worked to death. And Alfre Woodard storms the film in her few minutes of screen time as the wife of a slave owner who realised long ago that the best way for her to survive was to join the safest side and wait for God to punish them.
12 Years a Slave is a well-made, unchallenging film about one of history’s most inviolable evils. Its performers are uniformly strong, save perhaps Brad Pitt who has the unforgivable task of playing the noble white Canadian in a sea of despicable southern racists. It is in this area that McQueen’s rarely heavy hand shows; did we really need Pitt’s character, Bass, to explain to Michael Fassbender’s psychotic preacher Epps why slavery is wrong? For whose benefit was that—the character or the audience?
McQueen also chooses a close-up on a dropped bar of soap which feels teleported in from a TV movie; similarly, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam’s performances would be better left to community theatre. When the tone is not right, it is particularly jarring.
But thanks to the fine work of Ejiofor—whose performances is truly breath-taking—12 Years a Slave is still a powerful document of one man’s journey into and out of slavery.
[rating=3] and a half
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.