There’s a lot to be said about artist turned filmmakers – both good and bad – but Steve McQueen is the crème de la crème. His short art films like Bear, Carib’s Leap and Western Deep, felt like art films seeking a narrative, but nonetheless enthralling works. This is a feeling he himself reciprocates, citing his art films as poetry, and his feature lengths as prose. I can’t confess to having seen all of McQueen’s art, but his new film based on a true story set during the later years of the American slave trade, feels like his most successful artistic endeavour and yet his least “artsy”.
McQueen’s three features have all been about physicality and confinement: Hunger, Shame, and now, 12 Years A Slave. The stoic main characters in the past films have had to deal with different types of suffering, and the viewer sees this in great brutal detail, often left to figure out how and why this has, or was allowed, to happen. What might be most evolved here is the portrayal of the protagonist. Solomon Northup suffers too, and it too is visceral suffering, but also his inner thoughts and emotion are clearly shown, without slapping on some trite voiceover divulging paragraphs of the original text. Solomon eventually has to concede to hiding his true identity in order to survive, but still, a human kidnapped into slavery, so much is revealed in the glimmer in the eyes of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, or less abstractly, the drop of a shoulder or clench in his throat. Much to the films credit, while it is almost consistently a first-person narrative, it is made clear Solomon’s case of kidnapping into trade was not a singular event: it happened to hundreds of men and women and children.
There is much talk of the violence in the film, which, yes, pulls no punches, but remains completely honest. If McQueen wanted to be sadistic, he would have included the not uncommon use of lemon juice and similar concoctions added to the whips, to inflict more pain, or far more horrendous things I do not wish to write. The film even touches on the under-reported sexual corruption of the slave trade. McQueen’s aesthetic is all in the service of the truth of Solomon Northup’s experiences, a singular experience of the slave trade. His visual vocabulary is as usual, astounding, and as in previous films often demands the attention of the viewer with long unbroken, steady takes. One might argue McQueen is guilty of his artistic temperament, declaring with these long takes that, “This is important! Engage! Pay attention, there is more than meets the eye here! etc.” And while it could be said this worked for Shame and its multiple layers of possible allegory, its subtle metaphors for modern society, and thus maybe had to break away from typical film editing – with 12 Years there is no denying the long take has been rarefied, but when used it is driven by content rather than message. Or maybe it hasn’t been rarefied, and I was just that involved in the moment I completely forgot I was witnessing hefty unbroken shots. Either way, this style (or lack of) and realistic cinematography give a feeling of documentary or even time-travel.
Surprisingly the photography of voluptuous landscapes is not a problem either (a problem I often have with films about dark matters that mistakenly indulge in aesthetic beauty simply because it looks cinematic). Initial thought might have been to take the Luis Bunuel approach to cinematography, to hide the beauty as to further push forward what the film is trying to say, but the beauty and the horror are so naturally tangled and juxtaposed with great effect by McQueen and his marvellous cinematographer Sean Bobbit (The Place Beyond the Pines, as well as McQueen’s shorts and features). These heinous acts were taking place in some of the most stunning parts of America. It might sound simple, but really think on it and it sickening – a place of such beauty held such attitudes.
Filmic analysis aside, 12 Years A Slave is a massive achievement for all involved, and a genuinely very important film. This film depicts a microcosm of what occurred, something we are now still feeling the (largely unattended) repercussions of. By the telling the story of Solomon Northup, a free man with friends and a family and home, a man kidnapped into slavery, he is a symbol that all slaves should have had freedom – should never have been slaves or lesser beings – but were never allowed to fully realise their lives.
While particular moments in the film are more dramatically upsetting than others, the true core of the sadness is as much in the story as it is in the depiction of the facts of that day and age. That is to say, the film is a whole, not so much hitting peaks of emotion but rather an entire segment of a largely ignored truth, which is as miserable to the core as it is a vital work. A masterwork to be held alongside the finest works of art, as well as educational textbooks.