Overview: The true account of Solomon Northup, a free man, who is abducted and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America. Fox Searchlight Pictures; Rated R; 134 Minutes.
Strengths: Through his first features (Hunger and Shame) Steve McQueen proved himself to be a daring, class-act auteur of visceral storytelling. 12 Years a Slave heightens that reputation. A former artist, McQueen exhibits that influence in his skill for framing the luscious greens hanging from the forest and stretching through the land around the plantation. But more impressive is his knack for using the camera to force the audience into an honest position as witness- the camera slowly circling as Northup is forced to whip a young female slave or the uncut stationary and distant frame holding on Northup as he tiptoes in the mud to survive the noose around his neck. Those are two scenes in which McQueen’s camera makes the viewer participate more than view, establishing what might be the most poignantly realistic portrayal of this country’s darkest chapter.
Performances: McQueen gets the best of his performers. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o will receive deserved praise. Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, and Paul Dano are exceptional in limited screen time. Michael Fassbender is repulsive and incendiary as Edwin Epps, the final and most vicious of Northup’s masters. No actor/director pairing in film today works better than Fassbender/McQueen (And I see you over there, Scor-caprio!).
A Few Weak Spots: McQueen’s first features displayed all the same directorial muscle but, in terms of story, McQueen may have benefitted from the plot brevity of those earlier works—that is, both Hunger and Shame offer events refined to a determined and slight timeframe. Here, in the adaptation of true events, the story is obligated to cover a much more extensive chronology and the movie fumbles with the transitional narrative framing. For such a large chunk of time to have passed, development of Northup as a person/character seems lacking. Time is also hard to measure. As affective and searing as each scene might feel individually, the weak scene-to-scene narrative joints establish a final product which at times works more like a collection of sadistic and cruel vignettes, education-through-shock. Further, the conclusion is brought on abruptly by the introduction of Bass, a deus ex machina wandering Canadian angel of cultural moralism played here by Brad Pitt. Bass’ inclusion feels trite, packaged, forced; an easy and obvious escape hatch from the hall of horrors through which we just walked. More attention to the conclusion’s joy and celebration could have been paid (certainly the audience and character deserved that), and the earlier violence would have been equally effective. McQueen will need to find comfort in presentation of despair and joy in future features.
Overall: While flawed in the cinematic construction of its narration, the exhibition of craft and courageous commitment to truth sets 12 Years a Slave apart as an exemplary, important, and necessary film.