If you have yet to see Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, it might be easy to be put off by the hyperbole surrounding the film. Since it premiered at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival in September, the cinematic adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir has been flooded with praise. The word “masterpiece” has been tossed around liberally. Critics and scholars have called it a “necessary” piece of filmmaking. More than a few writers have declared, “the Antebellum South was nothing like Gone with the Wind!” Apparently, we all thought it was before McQueen came along.
Which is not to say that McQueen doesn’t deserve the praise. 12 Years a Slave is his third film, and while it’s almost inarguably his best work it’s nice to think audience members might be inspired to watch Hunger(2008) or Shame(2011) because of it. 12 Years a Slave really showcases McQueen coming into his own as a filmmaker. While his first two films are admirable and powerful, this film demonstrates such unmistakably masterful artistry in the way it is shot and structured. It’s two hours and 13 minutes of profound moments. Every scene hits hard. Every exchange is meaningful.
Northup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a long-underrated actor whose natural dignified elegance makes his performance even more memorable. When Northup is kidnapped from Washington DC and transported to New Orleans as a slave along with several others, the film is meticulous in showing us how it was done. When Paul Giamatti, as a wealthy slave trader, sells Northup and a woman he was kidnapped with to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), effectively wrenching the woman from her two children, there is no heavy-handed melodrama about it. It’s a cold and very realistic business arrangement.
Economy is ever-present in the story. Slavery is a business and a social structure, and though 12 Years a Slave features some of the most despicable white characters in any pre-Civil War-era film in recent memory, it never backs away from the view that evil is simply a byproduct of the time. The opening scene involves slaves learning the right way to harvest sugar cane. Slaves are used for building, grocery shopping and evening entertainment. Northup’s second master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whips slaves who don’t pick enough cotton. Horrible things are done to other human beings, not in the name of racism or supposed religious entitlement but in the name of turning a profit.
This is one of those films where everyone has an opinion to how you should react to it, both intellectually and emotionally. But to truly see it as the staggering piece of work it is you have to remove 12 Years a Slave from its social context. In fact, McQueen has been actively encouraging viewers to separate it from their preconceived feelings about race issues and even slavery. This is not a message movie, it’s a universal story about institutionalized cruelty and the struggle of one man. According to McQueen, we are all meant to put ourselves in Solomon’s position and wonder what we would do no matter our race. You can make political statements about this film but that’s missing the larger point.
It’s also a nearly flawless piece of work. Every performance is spot on. Both Ejiofor and Fassbender, who portrays Epps as a mixture of genuinely pathetic and genuinely terrifying, convey pages and pages of subtext on their faces in those moments of silence that McQueen is so skilled at creating. Kenyan actress Lupita N’yongo is fantastic as Patsey, the young slave who is the object of Epps’ rage and desire. Sarah Paulson, as Mary Epps, manages to be even scarier than her husband. Cameos by Cumberbatch, Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt lend weight to every chapter of the story. Full credit should also be given to cinematographer Sean Bobbit, who has worked on all of McQueen’s films and is incredibly gifted with a camera. And John Ridley’s screenplay lends an authenticity to the 19th century dialogue that allows it to be fiercely eloquent and approachable at the same time.
I would encourage you to put aside the hype and let go of your expectations. 12 Years a Slave has the potential to impact our culture, but more importantly, it’s a gift to film lovers that effortlessly stands on its own.