12 Years a Slave left me wondering if slavery has had its own cinematic Schindler’s List, the Holocaust being the 20th century’s greatest atrocity and Spielberg’s film being the definitive artistic portrayal of it. Slavery being the previous four centuries’ greatest atrocity, I don’t think 12 Years a Slave is quite that definitive work, but it’s still quite good. There’s been “Roots” but that was a TV miniseries. It is great that this story got told, and told well, but in the pantheon of artistic explorations on the subject, it’s more akin to Sophie’s Choice as a harrowing individual narrative about the toll surviving a social atrocity takes on even its heroes. That’s still a good thing but in the festival circuit and awards buzz I already feel like I have to defend myself for saying it’s just good.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man from New York, but is tricked into straying from safety and sold into slavery. He maintains the will of a free man as much as he can but has to learn to survive in a world of slave owners. After standing up to one slavemaster Tibeats (Paul Dano), he is sold off to the most brutal owner around, Epps (Michael Fassbender). On that plantation he witnesses Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) be persecuted even worse than he is.
What director Steve McQueen does that is so powerful is let scenes play out in long, single takes to let the uncomfortable material simmer. He has the confidence not to editorialize because he doesn’t need to. You see a man hang on his tiptoes for over a minute and it speaks for itself. You see a graphic whipping play out and it speaks for itself. The most harrowing scenes have no score to tell you how to feel. The most startling violence is actually the casual kind, and I have to give credit that the film uses its depictions of atrocity sparingly, because it’s not exploitation and it has class.
This objectivity gives the film a little distance for me though. The situation itself is emotional so the depiction of it doesn’t need to be. Maybe it’s a little clinical so I find myself studying the purpose of each shot and framing. I never forgot that I was watching a movie about slavery, which is aesthetically the goal, unless it’s not. McQueen lets the story unfold without forcing it, which is what a storyteller should do, but I was aware he was doing it.
The story of Solomon Northup is tragic, and confined to the actual events and the book Northup himself wrote. Suspense isn’t on the menu because there’s not much chance he can escape or change his situation. A few attempts play more like isolated incidents than an escalating plan. That’s the nature of historical reality, and it would have been a disservice to emphasize a plot when the focus is, rightfully, on portraying the experience of slavery rather than a caper about escaping slavery.
The more consistent issues are Solomon’s grasps at dignity, which do make an interesting drama of subtle victories. The narrative gets a lot of drama out of Solomon’s will and Epps’ tyranny, and Ejiofor and Fassbender are certainly powerful performers to exhibit that. Nyong’o is the revelation of the film and Patsey’s story the most harrowing.
The episodic nature of the story isn’t necessarily a problem either, as it covers 12 years and real life can feel divided into sections like that. Maybe it’s just a combination of objective, episodic and character-specific nature of the story that hits me more intellectually than emotionally.
I have no doubt that 12 Years a Slave is the work the artists involved set out to make, and individual viewers will all have their own unique reaction. It is really well made and I can’t think of anything I’d want it to have done differently. I really respect the choices he made and the way he portrayed things. I guess I just study them more intellectually than emotionally.