For as long as cinema has existed, there have been movies about human atrocity. It’s one of our favorite things to tell stories about. The optimist would say that these films help us to heal wounds, to work through difficult cultural memories by recreating them in a dramatized context. The pessimist would say that these types of films are too often treacly and cloying, and that they inappropriately use real-life horror to yank at your heartstrings, your wallet, and possibly your Oscar vote. But if there’s one thing that 12 Years a Slave doesn’t do, it’s that.
Director Steve McQueen favors a distant, removed approach, one that might alienate viewers who expect to be lead by the hand through this story. He doesn’t shove his images in your face; he simply places them on screen and leaves them there. This film says “12 Years” right there in the title, and there are scenes where he makes you feel that horrifying length.
There’s an extraordinary scene probably a third of the way through the movie where Solomon, played expertly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is strung up on a tree with a noose around his neck, as a type of punishment. He’s left with just enough room beneath his feet to stand so that he won’t suffocate. But the ground is muddy and loose. McQueen holds on a wide shot of Solomon hanging for what felt like several minutes.
He doesn’t give you the safety of a cut. You’re forced to watch this awful, awful thing, and what’s more, you’re forced to feel its duration. McQueen is making a point about all the movies about slavery – and other human atrocities – that have come and gone.
This movie doesn’t make you feel safe. It doesn’t want you to think of Solomon’s story as a “learning experience.” This actually happened, this is someone’s life. This isn’t an opportunity for you to feel proud of yourself for watching such a difficult movie. McQueen isn’t going to leave any of this to your imagination, because whatever you could come up with wouldn’t be half as bad as what actually happened.
The film weaves through a cavalcade of character actors, and most of them come and go without making much of an impression. Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress who stunned so many people with her performance last year in Beasts of the Southern Wild, shows up very briefly at the beginning of the film. I don’t even think she has a line. Michael K. Williams, best known for his role on The Wire, also shows up for one scene. There’s a lot of this going on in the movie, but it mostly feels like casting for the sake of casting.
The worst example of this is Brad Pitt, who shows up in a pivotal role at the end. I like Pitt, but he’s not quite strong enough as an actor to pull off the part. I’d rather have seen a bunch of great unknown actors populate the film, especially considering how great Lupita Nyong’o is as Patsey, a slave whom Solomon meets later in the film. Her performance is mind-bogglingly good, maybe the best in the film, and she was cast straight out of college .
Michael Fassbender’s performance is one that I can really see standing the test of time, much in the same way that Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List is still a part of the cultural consciousness surrounding Nazism. Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a brutal plantation owner who Solomon is owned by for most of his enslavement. Fassbender makes an interesting choice to not play Epps as just sadistic and mean.
Epps is a complex character, pressured by his manipulative wife (Sarah Paulson, who crushes it) to use more and more power over the people he owns. Epps is shown to often come home late at night, extremely drunk, and wake up his slaves to dance for his amusement. He’s not being cruel to people, in his mind. He’s playing with his pets. And he’s using his slaves to exert control that he can’t with his wife.
He has a sexually abusive relationship with Patsey, who in turn is tormented by Epps’ wife out of jealous hatred. In a sick, demented way, he loves her, and his self-loathing for that fact manifests in further torture of her. Lesser actors (under lesser directors) would have just said, “I’ll make him one-dimensionally evil, and no one will complain because he’s a slave owner.”
Like Nazis, slave-owning Southerners are seen as inherently evil in a ton of pop culture. McQueen and Fassbender don’t excuse Epps’ horrific behavior, but they place it in a psychological context that’s captivating and intelligent. In fact, “captivating and intelligent” is a good way to describe 12 Years a Slave as a whole.
Of course, the film is anchored by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and it’s a testament to the strength of this cast that I’ve taken this long to get around to him. It’s the kind of performance that’s so obviously good that there’s not a whole lot to say about it. It’s all in his eyes.
McQueen’s camera has a love affair with Ejiofor’s eyes, and with good reason. He’s able to communicate with a look what some actors couldn’t with a three-page speech. That’s something you need for such a minimalistic film.
That brings me to one of my few complaints about 12 Years a Slave, which is to do with the screenplay. A lot of scenes feel awfully over-written. I’ve been praising the movie for not pandering to Oscar voters, but there are a few scenes which lean too heavily on speechifying. Brad Pitt’s character in particular is given to lengthy monologues about his beliefs.
It’s like they lifted passages directly from Solomon’s memoir and made him say them on screen. That sort of thing works for direct lines of dialogue, but people probably wouldn’t talk in the way that Solomon narrates the book. The screenplay avoids that most of the time, but the moments where it doesn’t stand out.
My only other complaint is about the score. I’m not a Hans Zimmer fan, and I think that this might be one of his worst works. He’s smart enough to get out of the way and let some scenes play without music, but his score just doesn’t fit with the film most of the time.When it’s not using some weird, blaring, out-of-place percussion, it’s going for the sweeping, weeping strings that slap you until you cry along with them.
You know who would have been great instead? Jonny Greenwood, composer of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Again, minimalism is what this film is all about, and he’s a composer who bonds tightly with the director’s style. Unlike Zimmer, who just does his Zimmer thing all over the place regardless of what the film calls for.
But those are minor quibbles. They don’t tarnish 12 Years a Slave‘s status as one of the most vital films ever made about slavery, or indeed any similarly monstrous institution. It captures tragedy and cruelty with a clinical eye, and by doing so strips away any preconceived notions or emotions. You have to take this movie on its own terms, not yours. You don’t get to walk out feeling all happy for yourself because you sat through it.
What good could possibly come out of something as heinous as slavery? We don’t get to stand on top of this movie and feel better about ourselves. That’s not fair to the thousands of real people who suffered and died during this time. The fact that 12 Years a Slave understands this makes it smarter than any other movie about slavery that I can think of, not to mention one of the best films of 2013. This is essential American cinema.
Verdict: Movie Win
*Nyong’o actually went to Hampshire College where, funnily enough, Movie Fail contributor Michael Capodiferro is currently a student.