Saw Steve McQueen’s film 12 YEARS A SLAVE and was disappointed in his depiction of a damning period in American history, that I thought might beome a classic. The true story based on an autobiography written by Solomon Northrup in 1853 is a horrific indictment of slavery, and despite my reservations to the way the story was filmed, I firmly believe this movie should be seen to make audiences aware of how black people became chattel - property rights with total disregard for their humanity. I keep mulling over and over in my head what it was about the way the narrative was presented that just did not make it into the transformative experience that I had hoped for. By writing this review I attempt to make sense of it.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is faithful to the original book; the brutality – vivid and visceral - is omnipresent to the point of predictability like a horror film. So much so that we become inured – as Hannah Arendt said with such clarity - to the “banality of evil.” Every frame is filled with the hatred of those in power towards their economic “stock,” ironically often in tandem with the Masters’ righteous readings from the bible. The cinematography of place (Louisiana), the cotton fields, the plantations, the dark secret niches of evil, are brilliant, but when the camera tilts upward towards the heavens, we view the ever familiar light (hope?) dappling through the trees; we might be dazzled, but also we are being manipulated.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup – a free black musician who lives a middle-class life with his family in Saratoga, NY. One day he is tricked into going to Washington D.C. where he is kidnapped into the slave trade, and sent to work on a plantation in Louisiana. He is now a person who has lost his identity, his name, and the freedom to live the life he had chosen for himself. A slave is denied access to any internal growth, be it cultural or educational – a slave is only considered a work animal - and 12 YEARS A SLAVE makes that chillingly clear. The life of a slave is one of savage beatings that are administered daily throughout the film. From being regarded with dignity and compassion, Solomon is now part of America’s execrable relationship with its black population, and is treated like a beast of burden. At the same time, we are made privy to Solomon’s “exceptional-ism” which is evident throughout the film. He can read and write, has engineering skills, and is a fine musician, but his true persona must be hidden to be able to survive.
Sadly, I felt that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, his facial expressions, the slump of his body missed a beat, and did not succeed in conveying the breadth of intrinsic wrestling that a man whose life had been stolen from him must be undergoing; this detachment left me emotionally confused and unmoved.
Many films have been made chronicling heinous chapters in the history of humanity, but for a film to be distinguished from all the others, the images and content must be transmuted in such a way that we, the viewers, leave the theater unsettled, our minds and hearts having been pierced, and our certainties put into question. That is what makes a good movie powerful; one that does not give in to the calculable, sentimental or the gratuitousness of violence. Like any art form - a major film moves us and does not numb us. We gain fresh insights and this adaptation might have skirted excellence but did not attain it.
A footnote: I could not help comparing 12 YEARS A SLAVE with DJANGO UNCHAINED – a movie which gave us an un-expurgated barbarous vision of overweening racism, the slaves and the plantation slave owners as well as a look into the hierarchy of slave society and their roles vis-a-vis their Masters. Employing the bitterly ironic humor, theatrical violence and over-the-top Tarantino style, the dialogue is often humorous and campy but deadly serious. I felt and still do that DJANGO was the most incisive denunciation of slavery I had ever seen in a movie. I have not changed my mind.