12 Years a Slave is yet another McQueen masterpiece…”

I’ll admit, there was closeted anxiety when I heard that British director Steve McQueen would tackle the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, written by free-man-turned-slave Solomon Northup. McQueen’s first two features – the disturbing, poetic piece Hunger and the depressing, sometimes troubling Shame – were somber tone films and featured small budgets and small casts. With 12 Years a Slave, McQueen would be working with a larger cast, a bigger budget, and have his film seen by a wider audience. This time, Michael Fassbender’s name wouldn’t be the only one featured prominently on the film’s theatrical poster; McQueen would have to make room for such stars as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt. But you know a film isn’t marketing star appeal when Brad Pitt’s name is the fifth actor named on the poster.

But I report back with great news; 12 Years a Slave is yet another McQueen masterpiece, unaffected by the rise in big-name actors, unharmed by a bigger budget and a larger scope, and simply unfazed by the presence of McQueen’s meditative style of filmmaking. McQueen has made a film bearing huge promise with his trademark styles to a polarizing effect, to the point where almost every word of praise seems either overblown or oversimplified.

12 Years a Slave
Directed by
Steve McQueen
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Release Date
1 November 2013
Steve’s Grade: A+

The film details the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) beginning in 1841, where he is living the life of a free man with his wife and two children. One day he is lured by two men, with promise of a lucrative gig touring with a traveling circus playing his fiddle. After a night with the men, he awakes from a drug-induced sleep with his hands and feet shackled. Solomon undergoes numerous mental and physical torture before being sold to slave owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who sees incredible value in the man he is. After a short stint with Ford, he sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is more of a slave driver, to undergo even more serious levels of torture.

It is detailed from the beginning that no matter what kind of slave you were during the time period – if you picked sixty pounds of cotton in one day or over five-hundred – you were a worthless black. One young woman is named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who is the best slave Epps has. She picks three times her weight in cotton, and still is subjected to dirty clothing, horrible working conditions, and the stench of herself that makes her gag and nauseated. Solomon, on the other hand, remains mostly quiet during these times. His facial expressions speak louder than words, but he believes to show as little emotion as possible and to do the work that has unfairly been placed upon him.

Ejiofor will hopefully get the recognition he deserves with his performance in the film. His portrayal of Solomon Northup is equal parts awe-inspiring as it is troubling. A minute long close-up – the kind of lengthy shot McQueen has a fondness for employing at various times in his films – on Ejiofor’s face towards the end of the film is an incredible distinction of emotion. Subtle facial expressions, such as a quivering lip or a mailable eyebrow make Ejiofor a marvelously restrained character actor, not afraid to make his emotions difficult to spot or interpret. Combined with McQueen’s conservative cinematic talents of never revealing too much only make for an enthralling affair in terms of quietness and disciplined filmmaking.

Several actors with larger names may be forced to earn mention later in ones’ analysis of “12 Years of a Slave” then they’re used to. Due to the greatness of the film’s leads, Ejiofor and Fassbender, actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Paul Giamatti have limited time on screen, but their presence isn’t an act of stunt casting because it’s much easier to see them as their characters. This is thanks to the beautiful makeup and historical costume design that compliments each individual here; no slave driver or slave looks inauthentic to the time. Other performances such as Paul Dano, who continues to show impeccable range after barely uttering an audible word in Prisoners, and Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s QuvenzhanĂ© Wallis as Northup’s daughter must also find a mention as they prove that supporting roles are no longer interchangeable and something you can just limit.

The film, to my surprise, was shot on 35mm, to capture the period with more authenticity than typical cameras bearing resolution and a crisper image. The vast openness of the southern plantations, the wide array of things occurring in the film, along with many objects and characters occupy a specific scene at one time never seems to bother director McQueen, as he always seems to know what to shoot and how to shoot it. Throw in Hans Zimmer’s pleasantly melodic score and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography that is able to house all of this beauty, and you have a complete aesthetic package. Rarely has such a small-scale director been giving such a grandiose leap to capture much more than he has ever done before. The only other man I can think of would be John Singleton, who went from Boyz N The Hood to Rosewood, depicting the infamous Rosewood massacre featuring a lot of land, a lot of characters, and a lot of storylines. I can only hope that 12 Years a Slave doesn’t suffer the same depressing fate of not being seen like the aforementioned picture.

This year we had, what I call, “The American Dream Trilogy” with Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, and The Bling Ring, three films that profiled violent pursuits of success in America. Since last December, it seems we have also been viewing the creation of the slave trilogy, which began with Quentin Tarantino’s powerful Django Unchained, continued with Lee Daniels’ flat but somewhat significant The Butler, and now concludes with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Those who fell prey to the overpraised and ultimately narrow Butler a few months back may find something much more incredible and daunting in McQueen’s film. Here’s a film that has characters, incredible jolts, and gives you history rather than encouragement to seek the history out, as Daniels’ film did. I hope the people that saw and even clapped at the conclusion of The Butler see this film and realize they were quick to praise a film that was more of a pamphlet on racial injustice and featured thin characters with little to say or do. 12 Years a Slave, compared to The Butler, is a Bible on such issues.

Footnote: I saw 12 Years a Slave on a Sunday morning before noon with an audience of about forty people. Rarely have I seen a more quieter, respectful, and diligent audience in my many years of theater-going. Everyone’s eyes locked with the theater, once the film started nobody fiddled for their cell phones, and strong emotion rained during the final minutes of the film. The film has the rare ability to captivate so many people at the same time for many different reasons. That, my friends, is one of the hundreds of reasons I adore cinema and regard a trip to the theater as the closest thing one can get to a magical experience.

Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic

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