Finally a movie about racism whose ultimate message is not “Racism is Bad”
Steve McQueen crafts a gut-wrenching, personal tale which, from the moment of its cinematic conception, was guaranteed a high berth in the Oscar race. Drawing from 160 year-old source material, McQueen taps into a deeply human story and rightly steers clear of the pitfall of a simplistic moralism message. Naturally shot and chockfull of award-winning performances, it rightly earned its 2014 Academy Honors.
The title spells it out from the beginning: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American violinist, is seized one day by two enterprising gentlemen who sell him down South into a prolonged term of enslavement. Following the Odysseus-like travails of his passing from one plantation to another, the audience is subjected to the demolition of a determined, educated, optimistic man.
The film shines in its incredible casting. Chiwetel Ejiofor blends into his character, feeling right at home in this antebellum setting. If nothing else is said for McQueen, he knows how to direct actors – particularly those in supporting roles. Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation to this genre, entirely sympathetic without appearing overly pitiful. Cumberbatch and Paul Dano also bring wonderful performances, though the former shows signs of editing to avoid his only passable Southern accent and the later provides his usual crazed bit-part.
Further, the editing enriches the film, though not without some dry spots. Particularly, the scene of Northup’s transportation by steamboat builds fantastic tension with the editing rhythms and audio mixing of the paddlewheel as it chops through the water. On the other hand, certain moments linger too long: especially a shot of Ejiofor in the woods sobbing. Because of its length, it diminishes the scene’s emotional value. Overall, however, the cadence of the film beautifully captures what the film is about.
My deepest appreciation for the film comes from its approach to the subject matter. Often stories dealing with American slavery tend toward blunt, overbearing morals about how slavery is bad – a correct ideology but one condescending to its audience. Rather than assuming the viewer is racist, 12 Years steers towards the more impactful story of a human being, his needs, and the systematic way they are stripped from him. What is mortifying about this film is not the scenes of physical or sexual violence, but rather the slow denigration of hope inside the strong-willed protagonist. By forcing us to watch Northup renege his statement “I don’t want to survive. I want to live”, the narrative becomes universal and a part of man’s nature is laid bare.
Steve McQueen has found a rare way to take a well-trodden concept and make it disturbingly fresh. Performances fuel this biopic and it is a shame Ejiofor will have to look elsewhere for his first statue. The slow unraveling of a gentleman, 12 Years a Slave crafts an excellent “Show don’t Tell” story that reminds us all of what we would hate to lose.