As has been widely reported, 12 Years a Slave is difficult to watch. That’s by design, of course, but it’s not simply a dutiful willingness to meet the scourge of American slavery at the only place any creator of conscience can. It’s in line with the cinematic aesthetic of director Steve McQueen, who made both of his previous films, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), into fearsome provocations. In different ways, they are exposés of the ugliness the life, whether of the self-punishment the most devoted will endure for a cause or the ravaging of the soul a modern individual will endure in the name of desperately trying to feel something, anything. In bringing the true story of Solomon Northup to the screen, McQueen bring his uncompromising art to the greatest blight on the history of the nation, and the results are understandably, necessarily grueling.
The results are also powerful, and, lost in so many assessments of the film, the clear result of skillful artistry. Utilizing the sturdy, classically-constructed screenplay by John Ridley (adapted from the memoir Northrup published in 1855), McQueen is as fearless as ever but has also tempered some of his technique tics. His prior films are rife with long, uninterrupted takes, which come across as an actor’s dream (letting them shape their performances with the disruption of editing), but also as a bit of a stunt. At times, the placement of such takes seemed almost arbitrary, but that’s not the case in 12 Years a Slave. They instead arrive at the purposeful moments, usually the most harrowing scenes, as if McQueen has chosen when he needs to present unfiltered truth, absent of the mercy of a glance away. What’s more, McQueen has previously favored static shots for his long takes, the camera perched as an unmoving observer, which naturally called attention to the shot. It’s different here, with the camera moving, though not ostentatiously so, nor with a hummingbird agitation. Instead, the camera artfully simulates the effect of an edit, subtly shifting to be at the different angle that a cut likely would have provided. It’s a smart evolution in style, preserving what’s most beneficial to the old approach and enhancing it to serve the material. That might seem like a small matter or one that any mindful director would be expected to embrace, but it’s remarkable how often filmmakers get mired in the redundancy of their own technique.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon, a free man in Saratoga, New York in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. A skilled violinist, he is recruited by a pair of magicians to provide the musical accompaniment for their traveling stage show, an endeavor that he believes has earned him a tidy sum, at least until a night when they pour celebratory alcohol down his throat is transformed into a next day when he wakes up in chains. Solomon has been kidnapped and sold into slavery, renamed Platt to insure his identity as a free man isn’t discovered, although the film makes it clear that the color of his skin is more than enough to satisfy the unscrupulous monsters who seem him as property rather than person. This leads to the lengthy servitude of the title, across different plantations in the south, characterized by differing levels of moral villainy but united in the willful blindness to what Solomon’s talents, knowledge and lurking self-assurance might reveal about his past. Ejiofor is remarkable in the role, shrewdly adhering to a resigned stolidness for much of the film, a desire to keep his head down to avoid scrutiny and punishment, which serves to increase the power of the inevitable moments when emotion bursts through.
Except for relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who excels as a slave beset by unfortunate attention from a malicious owner played by Michael Fassbender, many of the other roles are perhaps too narrow to allow for much nuance from the actors. McQueen has recruited a bevy of skilled, famous performers to fill many of those roles, which can give the film a slightly unfortunate sense of a progression of star cameos. It’s a testament, perhaps, to the desire to be part of a meaningful project in the superhero age of cinema, but it also can be a little distracting. (Though it’s worth noting that the one scene of Alfre Woodard is a bittersweet reminder that modern movies would be significantly better if she were getting good, regular work.) The same goes for the Hans Zimmer score, with its occasional indulgence in bleating, foreboding tones, emphasizing the dire turns of the story when no emphasis is needed. McQueen’s admirable focus and relentless devotion to the contours of the story, no matter how deep a chasm may plunge, provides all the portent 12 Years a Slave could possibly need.