You want to see a challenging film? Go see 12 Years a Slave. It’s not challenging in the sense that it makes you question its themes, or its character’s motivations. It’s a challenging film in the sense that it will make you think long and hard about what the purpose of making this movie really was?
12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in the 1840s living in New York, who gets tricked and drugged by two con men, and wakes up in chains. He gets put on the slave market and sent to Louisiana, where he spends the next twelve years of his life in slavery, despite actually being free. It’s, uh, uncomfortable on many levels.
First off I’d just like to say that this film has quite the impressive cast. I’m not even tipping my hat right now to the main players (Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender), who are excellent, but the supporting cast is insane. I’m not sure how he did it, but director Steve McQueen (not the Great Escape dude), managed to bring in plenty of recognizable faces in the type of small roles that would usually go to no-names, or extras who showed up to the set early and got lucky that day. Just off the top of my head, the following people had roles in the movie that were probably each under three minutes of screen time: Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Taran Killam, Michael K Williams, the girl who played Hushpuppy (not looking up her weird name), and Benedict Cumberbatch. I guess people were really passionate about this project, because that’s a pretty good slew of people who other movies would be happy to have in feature roles.
I’d also like to say that McQueen did an excellent job shooting the film, and it has the typical artistic flair that his other films have also had. Most of the cinematography is award worthy. But that’s to be expected from the guy. Hunger was fantastic if you’ve never seen it; and Shame was at the very least… interesting… He also has a good way of telling Northup’s story in an interesting timeline. In someone else’s hands, this film could have been the most eye-rolling Oscar bait slavery movie possible. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a pretty Oscar baity film, with its over-acting, its forced guilt, and its never-give-up protagonist who plays the fiddle (he has an appreciation for the arts!). But at least with McQueen, 12 Years a Slave became more of an intriguing arthouse film than something that resembles forgettable Hollywood blandness, like The Book Thief (whose trailer played before this film). Seriously, have you seen The Book Thief trailer? It’s about an orphan girl in 1930’s Germany who is learning how to read, and is trying to save books from being burned by Nazis, while simultaneously hiding a Jewish friend in her basement. It’s not only a substandard looking holocaust movie, but it’s also a substandard generic message film about education. About 3/4ths of the way through the trailer, the corny narrator guy with the deep voice shows up out of nowhere to say “WORDS WILL INSPIRE HER. COURAGE WILL GUIDE HER. HOPE WILL DEFINE HER.” That’s like a Frankenstein’s monster of unbearably generic trailer nonsense. Also, notice how all of the quotes are out-of-context compliments about the source material, but not the movie itself. But I digress… 12 Years a Slave managed to mostly stay away from that kind of hogwash.
But now I go back to my original question… what was the point of 12 Years a Slave? I’m not sure it ever escalates above being just a good period piece. A terrible slice of time, captured in an amazing cinematic way. I didn’t really learn anything new about slavery, or was offered a different perspective on the subject matter that I haven’t already seen in other films or readings. While Django Unchained was a cartoonish work of complete fiction, at the very least it presented a different (entertaining) viewpoint of a slave getting revenge on the wrong-doers. Even Schindler’s List, another tale of tragic mass human suffering, was told from the viewpoint of a Nazi who had a heart of gold. 12 Years a Slave is a rather depressing portrayal of a depressing historical period, told with the same depressing viewpoint as you’d expect. Actually, it wasn’t really told with much of a viewpoint. It’s more of a “fly on the wall” type film, where yes, it does mainly follow one guy, but we rarely ever get his opinion on things or are offered a unique perspective based on his back story. He gets broken down and beaten just like the rest of the slaves. I guess he has more pride than the others? I’m not really sure what that proves, either.
Was this supposed to be an uplifting film? You know, in the ending? That’s kind of what I thought it was going to be, based on the marketing. It’s really not. Sure, he gets out of his imprisonment at the end (which I don’t consider a spoiler; I mean, it’s called 12 Years a Slave, not Forever a Slave), but it’s not exactly through triumph and/or a great moment of human spirit. Northup basically benefits from coincidence, having been at the right place at the right time and talking to the right guy. And then he had to rely on that guy to keep his word. And it still manages to somehow end on something of a down note after that. I know this is a true story, and that’s just what happened, but I don’t know, I got more satisfaction watching Django blow up a plantation at the end of his movie. Go ahead and call me a philistine for saying that, but maybe I’d just prefer to not experience a depressing ending to a movie that just depressed the hell out of me for over two hours. I already saw Prisoners a couple of weeks ago.
I entered the film thinking “slavery was bad,” and I left the film thinking “slavery was bad.” Not exactly the makings of a great spiritual journey. But maybe it wasn’t really trying to be anyway? Maybe it’s just a story worth telling, because it’s a specific story we haven’t seen yet? I can live with that, I guess. And again, it’s not like this isn’t an outstanding film for most of its elements. I think Fassbender deserves an Oscar for his role as the evil slaver Edwin Epps. I don’t want to say he’s a “joy” to watch in this film (because that’s not the right word), but it’s the kind of role where you never know what the guy is going to do next, and Fassbender’s performance really amplifies that scary notion. I mean, for the film’s main fault of just being a depressing movie without having a real encompassing point to it, it’s still mostly a good movie. A *real* movie. It’s not assembly line Hollywood nonsense. It’s a movie I’d recommend watching for the simple purpose of experiencing a very unflinching portrayal of a dark period of history, told by a visually interesting filmmaker. I mean, at least this isn’t Tyler Perry Presents: 12 Years a Slave. We’ve got to be thankful of the little hypothetical things sometimes.
8 out of 10