Steve McQueen, to put it bluntly, makes bold movies. But really that’s still a gross understatement. In just his third feature film he tackles slavery – not an easy topic in the least. Even well respected and successful directors like Tarantino and Spielberg had nearly a dozen projects/films under their belt before taking on this subject or anything close to it. True, Tarantino’s Django Unchained was more a throwback to Peckinpah’s Westerns than an essay on slavery, but even the masterful Spielberg took some baby steps with films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun before tackling both Schindler’s List and Amistad.
An up and coming filmmaker, McQueen is already a force to be reckoned with. A strong visual storyteller, he need only frame what he’s constructed and then just let the camera sit there for us to know the point he’s trying to make. It’s simple but there’s always tremendous gravity to the scenes and situations be they be about a hunger strike, sex addiction or in this case the slave trade. McQueen’s films are unflinching as they come and his intent to tell difficult stories knows no bounds. Going after slavery shows he’s either really passionate about it or just trying to make a name for himself. But he already did that with Shame and how many filmmakers can land a Criterion title (Hunger) in their first at bat?
McQueen recounts Solomon Northup’s grievous journey from living as a free man in Saratoga, NY in 1841, to suffering slavery for 12 grueling years before regaining his freedom. It’s a distressing story and it might be necessary to make the distinctions up front that this is not an inspirational story, biopic or character study. This is a hard-hitting account of the atrocities of slavery. The idea of being subjugated to the point of property and stripped of basic human rights will never be fully comprehended by many people living today and so McQueen doesn’t soft soap or pull any punches about Northup’s tale.
12 Years A Slave is visceral to say the least and it’s not a small-scale story either. True this is one man’s story, but we see so much more of this world including things like property sales, a variety of owners from the benign to the malevolent and masochistic. McQueen tries, just a tad, to tell us that not all Plantation owners who bought slaves were as soulless as those selling them. There’s empathy for what’s happening yet those who might have the urge to stand up or are good people (like Benedict Cumberbatch) have neither the support or power to stop what’s going on and find their lives may be in danger just by showing compassion. But that’s a whole other topic and one McQueen touches only briefly.
Carrying the full weight of the film is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. He brilliantly, painfully and subtly portrays the frustration and emotion with an energy that just rips through the screen from the very first frame. However, a role like this requires restraint amid the dire hopelessness during his servitude, namely for the sake of survival. Yet for all the scenes where Ejiofor walks the line between determination and desperation few things say more about about his pain than an underplayed funeral scene where McQueen makes perfect use of his signature “long takes”. The focus on Solomon is steadfast and repeated in a few other key scenes (that leave the viewer either slack jawed or emotionally wrecked…or both) but this one really drives the message of his pain home as he accepts the fact there is no escape. Few films have such gravity and emotion conveyed with a single look but McQueen manages it on a handful of occasions.
Early after Northup is tricked and sold into slavery he’s told that “survival is about keeping your head down“. But like we’ve heard in countless tales like this, surviving is not living. As hard as life is, there is the belief that it can’t go on like this forever and as one slave casually comments, “the curse of the Pharaohs ain’t nothin’ compared to what’s awaiting the plantation class“.
As if to give reason for that statement the efforts to show slavery as a pure evil (and do justice to Northup’s story) take the form of one Edwin Epps (Fassbender), whose slave owning notions lean toward the idea that “it’s my property, I can do with what I want” and acts as such knowing that the law is on his side. This is Northup’s story, not a cross sectional history lesson, and so there are few counterpoints or figures willing to stand against slavery. Aside from Cumberbatch’s character there is only Brad Pitt’s Bass (in a very small role) who calmly and in an almost prescient manner responds to Fassbender stating “laws change, universal truth is constant“.
McQueen has gained fast fans with his style of filmmaking but aside from four or five standout shots, this doesn’t feel like a “McQueen film”. Most likely he decided not to make the story about himself, which is smart, but a good portion of the film feels less like something that could have been made had you handed the same script to any other accomplished director and let them tell the story. Maybe it’s just a progression in the career of a brilliant storyteller, similarly how Danny Boyle or Rian Johnson progress significantly from film to film and just his attempt to avoid type.
To use the a word like “powerful” to describe the events and subject matter of 12 Years A Slave undercuts the impact and really there isn’t a term big enough to do it justice. This is the story of one man’s life, but one that opens a window to a world of thousands of other untold stories referenced in the films closing notes. The idea that for all the near inhuman hardships endured, Northup is considered one of the lucky ones. Again this is not meant to be inspiring, it’s just honest. Steve McQueen tells hard truths, granted this is Solomon Northup’s true story, but sometimes there is nothing harder to take in life than the truth.