I’m not sure if I’m late with this review, or early. 12 Years a Slave has been in theaters for two months now, but I’ve only just gotten around to seeing it (college in the middle of nowhere causes problems for arthouse filmgoing). By now, it’s only playing in a couple theaters in the Boston area. In a few weeks, with Oscar nominations coming up, it’s set for a wider rerelease, so it might have been smart for me to wait. I feel like getting my thoughts out now though. Whatever time you end up seeing the movie, I highly recommend you see it.
Some of you probably have already seen it, and don’t worry, I’m not recommending you see it a second time (I imagine history teachers are the only group who’ll be regularly rewatching it). It has become the year’s highest grossing American independent film. Yet still many more people haven’t yet seen it. I get it, a brutal historical film about the horrors of slavery without any Tarantino revenge fun isn’t the most appealing viewing, and being told you should see something heavy and “important” by critics might actually make you want to see it less. I guess the best response to that would be, funnily enough, this Youtube video about Breaking Bad. The argument there is that intense media such as Breaking Bad and horror movies (which one could argue 12 Years a Slave is) are not necessarily enjoyable in the moment (and aside from its cinematographic beauty, 12 Years a Slave isn’t really even trying to provide in the moment pleasures as Breaking Bad did with its comic and “badass” moments amidst the intense drama), but rather the enjoyment and the real value of the work comes from after you’ve experienced it, processing and thinking about and discussing the work. In that spirit, some things to think about regarding 12 Years a Slave:
-What’s scarier: Michael Fassbender’s evil plantation owner or Benedict Cumberbatch’s “good” one? The former is truly hate-able, yet there’s something distinctly upsetting about the latter’s relative likeability. The former’s the sort of villain you see in a lot of movies that allows the white audience to distance themselves from the actions on-screen. The latter raises more serious introspection: even if we think of ourselves as good and even act good for the most part, are we still doing anything that supports evil?
-How director Steve McQueen avoids the audience spoon-feeding that plagues too many “issue” and “true story” movies (see The Butler as a particularly bad yet inexplicably praised example from earlier this year). I fully expected as soon as Solomon Northrup picked up a pen, we were going to be treated to narration, perhaps taken from his writing, describing in flowery language his feelings on freedom and whatnot, but no, McQueen trusts his camera to present everything we need to know visually. Northrup’s lines when he has them are insightful but it’s all natural dialogue with hardly any speechifyin’. Most of the time the only sound used to present his emotional state is Hans Zimmer’s score, a sensible choice given the character’s a musician. Beyond that, it’s all a credit to the director’s visual storytelling and to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s masterful acting. Both should make worthy Oscar winners.
-Looking at the film in terms of the zeitgeist, there’s a lot to say, both as part of a year where black cinema has gained a lot of mainstream success (notably the powerful Fruitvale Station as well as the aforementioned Butler) and as one of a number of films this fall that could be described, to put it in video game terminology, as “survival horror” (Captain Philips, All is Lost, Gravity). Gravity has cinematography awards mostly locked up but I’d argue this film’s similarly long-take focused style is at least as effective. Where Gravity‘s long takes show off with constant movement, fitting for that roller coaster of a movie, the long-takes here are almost unflinchingly still before their subjects, presenting us the pain of the past (while also giving us space to blink if need be).
-Isn’t Paul Dano’s face the most punch-able ever? Couldn’t have cast his part better.
-On the other hand, Brad Pitt could have been cast a lot better. I give him a bit of a break since he did produce the movie, but his performance sticks out as the least convincing. His character’s supposed to be from Canada, but he slipped into a Southern accent for bit and that just made me think of his part in Inglourious Basterds.
-How well does the film’s structure work? The first hour or so, where Northrup is continually changing locations, positions, and attitudes, is intensely gripping and pretty much perfect. At some point during the stay on the second plantation, however, a certain sameness develops and Northrup’s arc is essentially put on hold. The film uses this opportunity to shift focus to other characters, notably Fassbender’s and the slave woman played by Lupita N’yongo. They’re interesting and there’s plenty of emotion to their stories, but the freezing of the main character’s arc for a good period of time did disconnect me from the film a little bit and why I’m not on totally the same page as all the “masterpiece” raves. Yet then all the character arcs intersect for that whipping scene towards the end, which is an amazing showcase for Ejiofor, Fassbender, and N’yongo alike and might be the most on edge I’ve been watching anything since at least, well, the third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad, so the structure does pay off.
If anyone who’s seen the movie has any thoughts on these subjects or others, I’d love to hear them; please comment. For those who haven’t seen it yet, well, see it and get back to me. Doesn’t have to be immediately; this obviously isn’t ideal Christmas viewing. But at some point. Before the Oscars, or even after them. Films this rich should be talked about long after their awards hype has faded.