12 Years a Slave carries the Oscar-friendly “based on a true story” label, as it tells the devastating real tale of Solomon Northup, a free African American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery during the 19th Century. Later penning a memoir following the tragedy, Northup’s dreadful ordeal has only been previously dramatised in a forgotten 1980s telemovie, but now it has been immortalised by filmmaker Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen). The resultant motion picture is unsettling, harrowing and heartbreaking, yet 12 Years a Slave is also a gratifying sit, beset with powerful imagery and artful moviemaking, devoid of the eye-rolling sentimentality of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. While not the greatest motion picture of 2013, it is most certainly an essential document of one of the most tragic periods of American history.
In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living peacefully with his wife and two children. A free coloured man, Northup is educated and respected, but he is unceremoniously abducted after a night of heavy drinking, waking up one morning in shackles. Against his will, Northup is renamed Platt and shipped to Louisiana to work on a plantation owned by Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Thus begins a twelve-year odyssey for Northup, who is utterly broken by the demoralising slavery system. Eventually winding up on a cotton farm run by the brutal, slave-breaking Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Northup also meets young slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) as his hope gradually dwindles that he will ever win back his freedom or see his family again.
McQueen reportedly wanted to pen an original motion picture about a free black man who’s forced into slavery, but could not quite crack it. Until, that is, his wife introduced him to Northup’s 1853 memoir, paving the way for 12 Years a Slave. (There are clashes over who was responsible for the screenplay, but it seems that both McQueen and the credited John Ridley both contributed.) One of the script’s biggest successes is the poetic dialogue – rather than modern-sounding chatter, the dialogue throughout 12 Years a Slave feels organic to the era, while also being engaging and naturalistic to boot, and that’s no small achievement. Additionally, McQueen ensures that we grow to care about Northup in the movie’s opening stages, and we are left to ponder how we would react if we found ourselves in similar circumstances. There are some superb thematic undercurrents at play here as well, as McQueen delves into the ethics of Northup’s odyssey to great effect. However, a few of the slave drivers are borderline cartoons, particularly Paul Dano’s character. In fact, Dano is introduced singing an offensive song over a montage of slave labour. Some may say such wickedness is accurate to the period, but there isn’t much depth to these roles, with the film seemingly intent on demonising those “evil white folk” who took advantage of the slave trade.
As demonstrated in motion pictures like Hunger, McQueen has a flair for creating visual and aural masterpieces, with every frame evidently subject to a great deal of deliberation. His filmmaking spell is amazing throughout 12 Years a Slave, convincingly recreating America’s South in the 19th Century on a modest $20 million budget. One can literally feel the sweltering heat of Louisiana, with the astonishing sound design that’s incredibly layered yet also understated and realistic. The film’s set design is equally breathtaking, with a textured sense of authenticity that feels unforced, bestowing a sense of vividness to Solomon’s ordeal. 12 Years a Slave was also shot on 35mm film stock (a rarity these days), giving the visuals a gorgeous texture and a real sense of scope. The colour palette is rich and vibrant, with McQueen refusing to lean on the cheap desaturation gimmick that’s become too widespread. However, McQueen holds onto some moments and shots for a bit too long. McQueen would have been wise to trim a few of the more uneventful shots, and he occasionally lingers on the torture too much when a more minimal approach might have amplified the film’s power.
The Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor is nothing short of mesmerising as Northup, who tries his hardest to maintain self-worth in the face of appalling oppression, yet must come across that he is not. It’s sold so well by Ejiofor, an actor who’s bounced around the sidelines of movies for years without making much of an impression, but who shows here that we’ve been underestimating his worth. Comparisons to Sidney Poitier are not unearned; Ejiofor’s performance is one of dignity and honest-to-goodness gravitas, creating such a fully-rounded character that not a single moment feels in any way contrived. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for her supporting role as Patsey, and for good reason.
12 Years a Slave also features a cavalcade of recognisable performers in minor roles. The always-reliable Paul Giamatti plays a ruthless slave peddler, while Cumberbatch is rock-solid as a plantation owner. McQueen favourite Fassbender appears as well, and he’s absolutely terrifying as the callous slave driver. And finally, Brad Pitt gets a minor cameo role as a Canadian carpenter who’s disillusioned by the American slavery system. Unfortunately, Pitt’s inclusion feels hoary; he acquits himself well, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that we’re looking at Pitt. A lesser-known performer might have made a bigger impact.
It’s easy to see why the Academy awarded 12 Years a Slave with the coveted Best Picture Oscar, as it’s a grim, powerful historical tale about racial issues that will probably be used in high school history classes in the future. But is it the best movie of 2013? In my humble opinion, it is not. It’s a compelling experience, to be sure, but lacking in replay value, and it’s something you appreciate more than you actually enjoy. It’s not a motion picture that you will want to watch again too often. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile history lesson, and the sense of time and place is astonishing. McQueen’s technical accomplishments alone make 12 Years a Slave worth watching, even if the experience is flawed.