I wouldn’t describe 12 Years A Slave as an ‘enjoyable’ film. The intent, as it should have been, was to make an essential piece of art that was viscerally honest about slavery and the nature of people and power of all races and classes. It’s a film to be experienced more than ‘watched’ — one that puts into shallow relief broader contemporary issues and policy considerations having to do with race, voting, immigration and citizenship rights. For these reasons, and many others, do yourself a favour and watch this film.
Steve McQueen approaches the film in a workmanlike fashion. Gone are the flourishes and innovations from Hunger and Shame. That is instead replaced by patience and starkness focused almost entirely on performance and content. The supporting performances are mannered and affected in ways that pulled me out from time to time — especially Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti. There are moments of unnecessary pandering and on the nose or clunky dialogue. The structure of the script, incorporating flashbacks within flashbacks was also misguided. Many of the characters verged on cliche and several beats we’ve seen executed better in less ambitious films. This film would have made a great play.
Not enough can be said about the magnetic performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced Chew-i-tel Ej-i-o-for), Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o. Fassbender in particular cemented himself as a revelation — he is terrifying and reprehensible in this film but you won’t be able to take your eyes off him. He deserves Best Actor consideration. As for Nyong’o, give her the supporting Oscar now.
I wouldn’t say this the best picture I’ve seen this year (or one of my favourites), or the best set of performances I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, or even the best of McQueen’s work at that. It wasn’t the experience I had looked forward to on an emotional level — but maybe that’s precisely the point.
There is no room in this story for selfish audience catharsis. It is a sledgehammer — uncompromising, unrelenting and crystal clear in its admonition and tragedy, serving as a necessary reminder to the horrors of genocide, the evil inside all people (even the righteous) and the raw and shocking politics of legislated elimination.
It’s also a reminder of the oppressive nature of language and re-affirms my anxiety about the N-word, and other derogatory ethnic or racial epithets, being used so loosely by those who shouldn’t be using them in inappropriate contexts. It seems we have taken so many steps backwards.
It’s incredibly difficult to watch, as it should be. You’ll come out of it with your own personal reaction and set of feelings. For my part, I didn’t feel too keen on discussing it after I left the theatre. I was pretty shell-shocked from the cleansing and intoxicating nature of the truths reiterated in this film. It confirms my long-standing and relentless feelings of shame and pessimism for humanity — for our capabilities in such awfulness. Our capacity for evil is so banal, efficient, systematic and absurdly innovative. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time.