12 Years a Slave

by Matt J. Popham

Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir might be the best cinematic study of the sin of slavery ever made. Sadly, a quick glance at film history reveals what pitifully faint praise that is. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good film. Very good, in fact. But for all its superlative qualities – and there are many – it falls disappointingly short of greatness.

The problem is not the cast, who are almost uniformly stellar: Michael Fassbender, continuing his personal mission to rip the mantle of Best Actor Alive away from Gary Oldman, burns through the screen with a layered, mercurial intensity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. Lupita Nyong’o has been deservedly praised for her wrenchingly vulnerable, but never cloying or precious, turn as the brutalized Patsey. And Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch is given the opportunity to admirably indulge his warmer, softer side as the sympathetic, but cowardly, Ford. Even the bit parts boast a range of respected pros, from Paul Giamatti to Alfre Woodard, each giving their all, often in the smallest of roles (which, unfortunately, only serves to make Brad Pitt’s bafflingly wooden – and mercifully brief – performance as a Canadian abolitionist that much more jarring). Anchoring the near Platonic ensemble is Chiwetel Ejiofor who, as Solomon, commands the screen with quiet, stubborn dignity. Leaving the flash and fire to his supporting players, Ejiofor renders the slow erosion of Solomon’s selfhood with subtlety and nuance, his determined reserve making the character’s agony that much more affecting.

McQueen’s signature unflinching gaze creates a cinematic space wherein we are made to study closely not only slavery’s circumstantial horrors, but the emotional torment and psychological toll suffered by those who endured – and those who perpetrated – it. In fact, for all the shock and awe surrounding the film’s supposedly unbearable portrayals of physical cruelty, some of 12 YEARS A SLAVE’s most powerful moments are those when McQueen simply holds silent and still on Solomon’s face, exposing the weight of his internal ordeal. A video artist turned director, McQueen made his debut with a confident authorial aesthetic already in place. His first two films (2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame) throbbed with a haunting, almost oppressive intimacy, inaugurating a unique cinema of confinement that should have dovetailed perfectly with the nightmare of Northup’s story. It’s surprising and a bit disappointing then that, for all that the film is punctuated by striking stylistic flourishes and affecting moments, much of its visual storytelling feels conventional and uninspired – almost mechanical – making it seem less assured than his previous efforts.

But what ultimately keeps 12 YEARS A SLAVE from achieving the eminence to which it aspires is the fact that it feels so curiously truncated. It’s difficult to cram twelve years into a little over two hours, but John Ridley’s adaption is both too focused and too accelerated, rushing from plot point to plot point while concentrating almost entirely on one narrative aspect of Solomon’s servitude. What’s missing everywhere but on Ejiofor’s face is the endless grind of slavery: the daily back-breaking routine, the existential hopelessness, and the ongoing cruelties that, after years of repetition, become commonplace. Ridley’s script nods to these aspects, but never engages with them, and while what’s on screen is certainly dramatic and compelling enough, we never feel the crushing burden of the passage of time. The end result feels more like TWO YEARS A SLAVE than 12. We know, going in, the weight and the impact that a story of this magnitude should have but, despite the anguish and unpleasantness we witness throughout the film’s running time, Solomon’s relief and reprieve come too quickly and too easily, leaving us, in some strange way, wanting more. Which, given the film’s subject matter and intent, we really shouldn’t.

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One response to “12 Years a Slave

  1. Matt, you were too kind to this film. I felt like I was watching a video game checklist of bad things that happened to slaves. The acting was as you say quite good, but still uninspiring. A film like that should have impact, but it didn’t. Saw Railway Man today. Similar in many ways and also based on a true story. But it pulled you in, had much more depth, and flirted just deeply enough with the ambiguities of honor and courage and survival in exceptionally brutalizing circumstances. It burrowed gently into the mind and psyche and left my heart touched. 12 Years a Slave left me flat.
    But you write great reviews. But I have said that before.

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