12 Years a Slave – 2013 – dir. Steve McQueen
Before we continue, I want to point you towards an article: “Why I Wouldn’t See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person” by Enuma Okoro of The Atlantic. I acknowledge right here that I am a white person and that this film, while unflinchingly moving, is something that I will only ever understand intellectually. Okoro says this in her article which I think is important to remember when discussing this outside of cinematic contexts, “I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people.” I look at this film as a film, and an incredible one at that, but I will never know the visceral experience of someone able to “see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen.” So go read that first to see another perspective, and a far more educated perspective than mine, before you read this which will be from a purely cinematic perspective.
12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northup who was born free in the Northern United States, kidnapped and sold into slavery in adulthood, and who eventually regained his freedom 12 years later. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in one of the greatest performances ever put on screen and features a massive supporting cast including McQueen regular Michael Fassbender as the sociopathic Slave Master Epps, Benedict Cumberpatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and best in the film (both deserving of Oscar nods and one the win) Alfre Woodard and Lupito Nyong’o. The story is heart wrenching and unflinchingly told by a master filmmaker who knows the language of film better than just about any contemporary director alive today.
While watching 12 Years a Slave so many things came to my mind. The previous films of director Steve McQueen Hunger and Shame came to mind for it was obvious that this came from the same mind and the same cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Films like Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut from director Stanley Kubrickcame to mind for both the beauty and horror in the artistic camera-work. I thought of films like Lincoln and Django Unchained from last year and The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Amistad from further back. How the similarities and differences between these films that deal with oppression say a lot about society.
Steve McQueen’s film is better than the last five mentioned above because it takes the great start that Django made in making a film about oppressed people actually ABOUT THE OPPRESSED PERSON/PEOPLE. The problem with the Spielberg films mentioned above is that they are all either about someone other than the oppressed people or they are told from a 3rd person perspective. What Django does right is make the film about the slaves, and what 12 Years does better is it gives them status as complicated human beings and as the tellers of the stories. There is a moment where McQueen almost breaks the fourth wall by having Ejiofor just stare towards the camera but not directly at it. His eyes move up as though to stare at God and then it’s obvious that he is staring, accusing not only God but every person who sees the film. But the accusation is not one of blame for slavery; it is blame for forgetting about slavery, for not acknowledging the reality of slavery. Nyong’o has similar moments in the film where she just stares at Fassbender, Paulson and even once at Ejiofor. McQueen knows the language of film and how important the power of the gaze is and he uses that gaze to give Nyongo and Ejiofor more power than any of the characters in the other mentioned film had.
McQueen has given the world the first mainstream film that looks at oppression and gives more than a “oh, how sad,” reaction. I think this may be the first time since I started following the Oscars that I admit I will be legitimately mad if a film doesn’t win Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave may not be my favourite picture of the year, but it is certainly the best. Just as it’s impossible to argue with how great films like The Godfather and Casablanca are, 12 Years a Slave deserves to be among the pantheon of great films and deserves to win Best Picture at the Oscars. I can’t see it not getting a nomination for Picture and it will likely also be nominated for Director, Screenplay, Actor (for Ejiofor), Supporting Actress (for Nyong’o), Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Film Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, and potentially ( although I would say undeservedly) Supporting Actor (for Fassbender). While I haven’t seen all of the big Oscar contenders for this year, this could and should win the big four (Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor) that it will be nominated for. I hope it wins more; there hasn’t been a film this important to hit the mainstream in a long, long time.
One of the biggest complaints about the prestige films of Steven Spielberg is that they have become the accepted historical narratives of the periods they show without focusing on the right story. 12 Years focuses on the right story, and says the right message, and above all else it says that this story is not the only story of slavery. When Solomon is eventually returned to freedom, he gets put in the same situation as he was in 12 years before except on the other side of it, being set free while people he had connected with were left enslaved. But where the man set free at the beginning left without empathy or mention of connection, Solomon hugs Patsy (Nyong’o’s character) in a bittersweet moment. He’s going free, but it is not a happy ending, because his story isn’t the only one. 12 Years makes no pretentions about being the sole dramatic telling of slavery, and that is why it should be remembered among the greatest films of all time.