Simply put, 12 Years a Slave is the best film of the year, for a myriad of reasons. I’m even more impressed after the second viewing. It’s beautifully shot, with nearly pitch-perfect acting, and a rhythm all its own. Perhaps it’s the one great film in a year of many very good ones.
Where to start? The cinematography occasionally reminds of Terence Malick’s films, with all the stunning nature shots. But director Steve McQueen is far more interested than Malick in story and structure. His camera (cinematography by Sean Bobbitt) presses in close, sometimes uncomfortably so, yet also lingers, sometimes lovingly, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes painfully. McQueen isn’t afraid to let shots last a long time, nearly just short of the shot length of an avant-garde film—except his shots don’t call attention to themselves, but allow the story to build in tension and resonate with greater power and meaning. His long shots allow us to feel and absorb the horror of what we’ve just seen, and [spoiler alert] in the case of the near-hanging of Solomon Northrup, the lead character, the length of the shot is used to tell a story and unveil more of slavery’s horror than mere words ever could.
The acting is first-rate throughout. In all the ink spilled on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Northrup, one thing that can slip by is how perfectly fit into the narrative he is. Northrup is an educated, polite, intelligent man, but he’s less a great hero than an admirable survivor. It would have been easy to portray him as a classic hero, and casting a larger-than-life personality like Denzel would have injured the film. I expected the film’s lead character to be “bigger,” and happily, he wasn’t. Ejiofor’s performance is real, beautifully modulated, and all the more powerful for not trying to be. He never overplays, and stays true to the character he creates. Most performances that win awards and get plaudits are those that pop out of the screen (all the leads in American Hustle), are surrounded by a film that sets the performance up on a pedestal (Streep in Sophie’s Choice) or are simply so much better than the performances around them (Christopher Plummer in Beginners). Ejiofor fits so snugly into the film that he’ll only win awards from smaller groups that can see how fine his work is.
The villain parts are usually considered the juiciest to play, and Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Fassbender might have chewed a plantation-full of scenery with all the options his wicked slave owner character gave him. He doesn’t, and the performance is perhaps even better than Ejiofor’s. His character is angry, tormented, unhappy, and cruel beyond understanding at times. Yet Fassbender demonstrates once again why he is the man of the moment in terms of screen acting. He hits every note clearly and purposefully—anger, being lost in a drunken stupor, making his many points about his power as a husband and slave owner, and occasionally, when he threatens to unravel. It’s not only powerful for what it is; it’s noteworthy for the many clichés it avoids. This one will be studied for years once people get over the impact of it.
Holding her own with these two is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who gives a stunning performance as Patsy. This is the Best Supporting Actress performance of the year, no matter who won the Golden Globe or who wins the Oscar. Nyong’o, like Ejiofor, stays within the confines of the film and never calls attention to her talent, but she is the find of the year. This is such a mature performance it’s hard to believe that she is so young. Yes, it’s a star-making role, but it’s also one of the best performances in any film in recent years.
Benedict Cumberbatch (PBS’s Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness) is excellent as a kind slave owner, and doesn’t have the kind of moments that might call attention to how very good he is in the part. True kindness is hard to portray with accuracy, especially in a film as full of cruelty as this.
The storytelling is expert. McQueen (or is it the screenwriter John Ridley?) seems to be offering a straightforward and classically structured narrative. But the film flows smoothly backwards and forwards, with flashbacks so psychologically connected that you forget the forward momentum of the story is being interrupted. And the music is at times spare, powerful and almost as cutting edge as There Will be Blood. Hans Zimmer (Inception) is a film treasure, and his work here, like the acting, is powerful in how it supports the overarching aims of the work without calling specific attention to its many strengths.
There are a few small glitches. One is the casting of everyone’s friend Paul Giamatti in the role of a slave trader. Giamatti is a good-to-excellent actor, but his persona as Mr. Nice Guy is just too strong to keep believability here. And Paul Dano as a cruel plantation manager tends to riff on his character rather than inhabiting it. Next to Fassbender’s work, it looks less lived in than displayed. Brad Pitt is quite fine in a small but pivotal part, and necessary as he is one of the film’s producers. His presence tends to take the viewer out of the film, but his character is quite welcome to the viewer, and his acting is good enough to keep the distraction to a minimum.
There is also something of a missed opportunity in its treatment of Christianity and slavery. Ford (Cumberbatch), the first slave owner, is portrayed as a genuine Christian believer and a kind, generous and thoughtful man. The scenes of him sharing from the Bible at group gatherings raise the issue of how a real believer could not only accept but live within that evil system. In his own writings, Northrup praises Ford’s kindness but raises the paradox of how a true Christian could also be a true slaver. The film does tend to offer subtlety rather than explicitness at several points, in story as well as imagery, but the issue is not addressed as clearly as it could be. John Newton, the slave trader author of the hymn Amazing Grace, was radically converted but took years to be convinced of slavery’s evils. That’s a topic well worth exploring, and the film bypasses its chance to even rub up against the issue, falling instead into a subtle but real, and too modern, anti-Christian stance.
It’s not enough that Epps (Fassbender) twists scripture out of context for his own diabolical ends, but he continually puts things in a (skewed) Biblical context, even when his thinking is anything but. Epps is clearly the villain and Ford a kind master, but their Biblical expressions and “preaching” tend to put them both unfairly in the same hackneyed category of the (yawn) Biblical hypocrite. It may take the viewer watching Amazing Grace (on the ending of slavery in Britain) once or more to get a little perspective and clarity on the role of genuine Christianity in the abolition of slavery in the West.
12 Years a Slave may well be the third film in a trilogy that its very presence creates. Though the director, cinematographer, and three male leads are all British, this is a film about America. You can’t understand America and film in America if you haven’t seen Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), films that continually and rightly provoke unending discussion on the role of slavery in our history and its depiction in our films. 12 Years a Slave will likely be the next film that will be spoken of in the same breath as those. It’s already provoked a great deal of discussion and criticism for how it addresses its themes. To some, it’s either too much this or not enough that, or its (true) story line fits into a cultural narrative that delights some and perturbs the sensibilities of others. It is and will undoubtedly remain a lighting rod and Rorschach test on every issue connected with race and slavery in America.
This is a film that every adult American should see.* It’s not definitive; no film addressing such an issue ever could be. It’s also not easy to watch. The violence is actually more restrained than reported, but McQueen doesn’t shy back from showing the horrors of all aspects of slavery. It’s often uncomfortable and just as often shocking, in its revelations of its characters’ perspectives as well as its images. The slave owner’s wife’s comments to a just-purchased slave mother newly separated from her children, for example, are as appalling as the physical violence in the film, and just as telling of slavery’s horrors. The film stands in stark contrast to Django Unchained, which is a whole other kind of film, but which uses America’s history of slavery as a cover for an indulgent bloodbath of violence with no redeeming aim in mind.
12 Years a Slave is disturbing, intellectually challenging, and exquisitely beautiful all at the same time. It’s a feast of good storytelling, camerawork, mise-en-scène, editing, acting, music, and direction. It’s a satisfying narrative and a troubling film all at once, and will be endlessly debated. It’s what art should do, and be.
* My writings are not meant to be reviews or recommendations. But I feel the need to mention that the graphic nudity in the film might be off-putting for many. It’s in the style of Amistad–straightforward, completely asexual, and meant to be dehumanizing. Would likely be too much for younger viewers and may be too distracting or disturbing for many adults.