12 Years a Slave


When a film comes out people talk about it. Then there is the Oscar buzz, if it’s that kind of movie, followed by a small amount of chatter around the DVD release and then you’re kind of done. Most of the film going public have moved on. In the case of Django Unchained though, now one year after it was in the cinemas, it is going to get a few more column inches.

Unfortunately for Quentin Tarantino, even though they say no publicity is bad publicity, I don’t think his latest movie is going to be spoken of positively this time around. The problem is that while he was talking it up last January he said it was the first film to properly tackle the issue of slavery in the US.

To be honest, even at the time he was pushing it a little. Django Unchained does show the horrors of the plantations but it is pretty sensationalist and by the end it dissolves into a preposterously overblown shoot ’em up. It isn’t a film you can take seriously. Now though Steve McQueen (born in 1969 so his parents were either big film fans or knew nothing about movies at all) has directed 12 Years a Slave which tackles the issue of American slavery properly. Comparisons will be made with Django Unchained and they won’t be favourable to Tarantino’s film.

I was ready for 12 Year a Slave to be quite brutal. McQueen’s last film, Shame, was an unflinching and uncomfortable look at sex addiction and this story has plenty of potential for explicit scenes of unimaginable barbarity. Some of the early reviews had also suggested this was going to be tough. This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, Tyrannosaur was hard to watch yet deeply rewarding, but I was expecting some moments of (justified) revulsion in what I was to see.

In reality though, 12 Years a Slave generally isn’t that graphic. Certainly there is nothing here as licentious as what Django dishes out and the film is the better for it. Someone should tell Tarantino that pulling your punches doesn’t stop you being hard hitting. There is one scene near the end that is pretty nasty but it depicts the result rather than the action of violence and is all the more affecting for the restraint of the rest of the film.

Having said that, this is obviously not Song of the South. While the film chooses not to focus on the violence it doesn’t shy away from the suffering and the injustice. Aside from the moment already referenced there is a scene early on, where the protagonist is punished for standing up to a vicious plantation worker. The scene is prolonged and very discomforting in the way it plays out. Elsewhere in the film there is nudity and sex, the latter of which is used both as a weapon and as a desperate attempt to feel something. Again, none of it is gratuitous but that doesn’t make it any less horrid.

The hardest moment of all though just centres around the burning of a letter, the film knowing that the emotional cost and hopelessness of the slaves’ situation is harder than any of the physical cruelty. It is this sensibility that gives the film it’s power, ensuring that it will stay with you and move you more than any movie to have tackled this subject matter before. 12 Years a Slave is upsetting for sure but don’t be put off, it is an important story to tell and a good film to see.

Before he came to cinema McQueen was obviously an accomplished and applauded artist and while this shows here, 12 Years a Slave is more straight forward in its construction and framing than Shame. There are several arty shots of sky and trees, which thankfully hold back from going the full Terrence Malick, and some playing around with chronology but I suspect McQueen has reined in the directorial flourishes for fear of distracting from the story. In many respects this is a fairly conventional film and in some respects is entirely typical of the kind of thing you see released around Oscar time.

It is interesting that a film about slavery actually centres around a free man. In case you’ve not heard the set up already this is the true story of Solomon Northup, an African American musician kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. This was ten to twenty years before the thirteenth amendment (this would make a good double bill with Lincoln) and clearly a dark part of American history, from a British point of view the time of Dickens and Darwin. You do get a strong sense of the injustice of Northup’s situation, he was a family man who should have been protected by the law, but in feeling this you also appreciate the terrible situation of the other slaves who do not have any of these rights in the first place. In some respects they seem more resigned to their situation which only makes it all the more tragic. Northup’s freedom is actually irrelevant but for the fact that he has some chance of escape and an end to his journey. In the same way that Boxing Day Tsunami drama, The Impossible, had to focus on someone because the real story was too big, Northup’s twelve years a slave should not eclipse the lifetimes a slave of all those other thousands of people.

As you would expect the cast are all excellent. There are a number of big names playing quite small parts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, but they all add to the film. Interestingly, the fact that familiar faces come and go quite quickly makes the film seem a little episodic. You get the impression that there is more to these characters than we see and that in some cases the movie is just playing lip service to moments from a larger narrative. This is undoubtably true as the film is adapted from a book which in turn was adapted from someone’s life but I don’t think this would have been as obvious if the cast had not been peppered with people from whom you expect more screen time. That said, you certainly do not get a real sense of the time that is passing and if it were not for the title I might have thought the whole thing had run out across two years, maybe three. It is good not to see people acting through ageing make up but the main character doesn’t look very different from the beginning to the end.

There are superb (and more lengthy) performances from Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender as the presentable faces of vile and unimaginable racism. Both of them showing insecurity, confusion, fear and weakness beneath the villainy. They are as pathetic as they are cruel and in some respects you pity them. Then there is Lupita Nyong’o as young female slave Patsy giving what is quite possibly the best debut performance since Alan Rickman raided the Nakatomi Plaza. (Winter’s Bone wasn’t Jennifer Lawrence’s first film.)

Speaking of astonishing debuts, in my list of films to see this year, I pointed out that this film marked the return of Beasts of the Southern Wilds’ Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. They are both here but blink and you’ll miss them and in the case of Henry I think I must have done just that.

Clearly though, this film belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor. Geeks of a certain persuasion will know Ejiofor as The Operative but the 36 year old British actor has had good, high profile gigs in a range of films, including Salt, Children of Men, Woody Allen’s Melinda & Melinda and, of course, Love Actually. With this part his time has finally come and awards may follow. It is a great but relatively restrained performance, which for my money isn’t as good as Tom Hanks’ in Captain Phillips, but the unshowy lack of histrionics suits the character and the film.

The final thing to mention is the music. This is the second film I have seen in a row where a composer whose work has become so familiar/similar that new works are almost a parody of the old has produced something new, original and unexpected. In the case of American Hustle that composer was Danny Elfman and here it is Hans Zimmer.

Being interviewed on the Empire Magazine Podcast, Steve McQueen said that when he phoned Zimmer to offer him the job, the composer immediately said yes, of course he would, as he was currently busy “destroying the world!” in reference to the work he was doing for Man of Steel. The suggestion was clearly that he relished the chance to write for something that wasn’t just another bombastic action film. His interest in the project shows and, aside of what he has done for Christopher Nolan, this is possibly his best soundtrack since True Romance.

12 Years a Slave is an excellent film. Certainly it is Oscar bait and perhaps it isn’t as cutting edge as we’ve come to expect from the director but it tells a moving story with expertise and handles its subject matter with dignity, which is more than you can say for Django Unhinged.

Bechdel Test Score = Sometimes there are more important things to worry about.

Is this one for the kids?

See above.

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