Steve McQueen’s third feature is a grand old-fashioned Hollywood epic that confronts America’s disgraceful past with a steely, unflinching gaze. But while the beautiful photography and barnstorming performances have seduced awards voters, 12 Years A Slave proves the director’s least interesting work to-date.
Based on the memoirs of protagonist Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, 12 Years A Slave documents the horrifying conditions under which slaves were forced to live and work in the plantations of Louisiana. Northup’s book, published soon after his rescue and hot on the heels of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, became a notable bestseller. In addition to throwing light on the atrocities these men and women were subjugated to, the text also helped expose slave markets and the illegal infrastructure under which Northup lost his freedom.
After falling out of print for close to a century, Northup’s text has become a definitive document on this dark chapter of American history. Perhaps because it has been referenced and pillaged ever since, informing every book and film that has broached the topic, the visceral impact of 12 Years A Slave has inevitably been dulled. Individual moments will rightfully shock and appal audiences – persistent physical & verbal abuse, wretched living conditions, unforgiving labour regimes – but the film shoots for the dramatic high notes so unapologetically that much of the endeavour feels clichéd and derivative. In the wake of films as recent as Quentin Tarantino’s extravagantly indulgent Django Unchained, McQueen’s approach feels less respectful than coy, even hesitant.
Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize-winning artist-turned-filmmaker, proved with his harrowing debut, Hunger, that he could deliver a coherent narrative about individuals fighting against persecution and personal sacrifice for the greater good, while simultaneously exploring the limits of the cinematic medium, both visually and aurally. His follow-up, Shame, was a more character-focused work, but in 12 Years A Slave, McQueen has delivered a beautiful, stately, yet soullessly conventional awards contender, complete with a cut-&-paste Hans Zimmer score that lifts heavily from his earlier work in Inception.
12 Years A Slave is a heart-breaking true story, brought to life by a troupe of incredibly skilled storytellers – but it’s nothing more than that. Chiwetel Ejiofor finally gets the breakout role he has deserved for over a decade. His Solomon is earnest, sympathetic, yet flawed and all the more human and forgivable for it. Michael Fassbender, who has featured prominently in all McQueen’s films to-date, is monstrous as slave owner Edwin Epps, yet still manages to give this most despicable of God’s creatures a soul and humanity. Lupita Nyong’o also deserves credit as the pitiable wretch whose beauty and unmatchable cotton-picking skills earn her the unwelcome attentions of her beastly owner.
While too good to be accused of being Oscar bait, 12 Years A Slave is so unavoidably awards-worthy, so inoffensively earnest, elegant and impeccably presented, that ultimately it proves somewhat underwhelming. It is a perfect Best Picture candidate, but the true horrors of slavery deserve to be told with a little less beauty and grace.
This review originally appeared in Vérité Film Magazine January 2014