Given the praise that has been heaped upon Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave to date, my expectations on entering the cinema were sky high. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, the compliments have been flowing ever since its US release a couple of months ago, and many have suggested this film is not only one of the finest pictures of the past year, but also one of the finest of all time: a masterpiece, no less, of modern cinema. While I think it is a very well-constructed film – and an excellent addition to McQueen’s impressive CV to date – it also has its faults, and some of these seem to have been glossed over in the initial clamour to laud it in the lead-up to the awards season.
Let me reiterate: this is a very good film, despite the fact it seems to be on the end of a slight critical backlash while being rolled out to countries around the world at the time of writing. I can certainly understand why it has been nominated for a Best Picture Shiny Gong (though personally I don’t think it should win, and that’s even before I have seen all of the nominated films). I can also understand why three of its actors – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o – have received nominations, and why its director has also received a nod (the Academy’s bizarre collective decision to ignore Fassbender and McQueen’s previous collaboration, Shame, still mystifies). But I think it falls short of being a masterpiece.
Ejiofor stars as Northup, a free black man who lives with his family in New York state. A skilled carpenter and musician, Northup is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Given a false identity by his captors, he is then sold by trader Theophilus Freeman (a depressingly exuberant Paul Giamatti) to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a plantation owner based in northern Louisiana. Though it is a complete oxymoron, Ford is a more benevolent slave master than most, but Northup experiences trouble elsewhere on the plantation, clashing with a racist white carpenter named John Tibeats (Paul Dano).
Tibeats eventually tries to lynch Northup following a dispute, so in order to protect the slave Ford quickly sells him to a neighbouring plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Fassbender). However Epps is a vicious sadist, who lusts after another slave, Patsey (Nyong’o) right under the watchful eye of his equally mean wife Mary (Sarah Paulson), and Northup’s hopes of freedom appear to dwindle with the passing years.
First of all, it’s disappointing that the subject of slavery has been off the Hollywood agenda for so long, although with 12 Years A Slave proving to be a moneyspinner and Django Unchained being Tarantino’s most profitable movie yet, a cynic might suggest we will be seeing more films about this period in American history in the near future, and not because of the critical acclaim those two movies and Lincoln have received. Hollywood will only tackle such issues if it is profitable to do so. While Steven Spielberg and Lars Von Trier have made films in the past 15 years that attempt to address the issue of slavery, the sudden trickle of films during the past 18 months that cover this subject damningly highlights the fact that the topic has been avoided by mainstream Hollywood since 1997’s Amistad, a movie which tellingly only just clawed back its $35 million budget.
McQueen’s powerful film, with a screenplay by John Ridley adapted from Northup’s memoirs, examines the brutality suffered by slaves in the deep south at the hands of their owners. The camera is unflinching, lingering on the scenes of violence and the aftermath of scarred and cut flesh, controlling its viewers and forcing one and all to contemplate the brutality of plantation life and the sickening cruelty endured by the unjustly imprisoned. In Shame, one of the most memorable scenes saw McQueen focus tightly on Fassbender’s face as his sex-addict character Brandon experienced an orgasm. This tremendous and uncomfortable scene seemed to go on forever, with the director refusing to cut away from the actor, who appeared to be experiencing both ecstasy and utter despair at the same time. McQueen uses this technique again in 12 Years A Slave: the camera is locked on Northup for an age as he hangs from a tree, his feet only just touching the muddy ground, but it is almost nonchalantly distant. As children begin to play in the background, it becomes clear just how commonplace such acts of senseless and vicious hatred must have been. This is a powerful and harrowing cinematic moment.
There is plenty of shocking brutality in the film, including rape and torture, but oddly I was just as shocked by the reaction by other characters to the events that take place in full sight of the plantation workers. When Mary Epps smashes a decanter into the side of Patsey’s face it is a shocking moment, instantly stopping a forced dance that is taking place for Edwin’s amusement. However once words are exchanged, Patsey’s body is merely dragged off towards a door as Epps orders the slaves to carry on where they left off, as though nothing had happened.
Later on, when Edwin (egged on by the jealous Mary) forces Solomon to whip Patsey as punishment for an extremely minor indiscretion involving a bar of soap, normal service quickly resumes on the plantation after the beating. It makes for depressing viewing, as well it should, but a question mark hangs over the director’s choice of strings as an accompaniment to these unnerving scenes.
McQueen chooses to juxtapose the violence of the plantation with the beauty of the natural environment. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography regularly takes in parting leaves and swaying trees, and the ominous scenes that show choppy water as the paddle steamer carrying new slaves moves south are magnificent and subtle. (The choppy water is an indicator for the violence to come, resembling the lacerations on the backs of several characters.)
Less subtle is a clunky pan from the Washington, DC jail in which Northup is initially tortured upwards across the rooftops to the US Capitol building, which looms in the distance. This is a rare mis-step, and is also one of the film’s few overt nods to the wider socio-political history of the slave trade, which surprised me given many critics had been talking about 12 Years A Slave as if it were a definitive statement on slavery. It isn’t: it is a dramatisation of one man’s account. It may be a good one, but it is nothing more than that. (Some have already questioned the validity of the overly dramatic scenes, such as the one taking place on the boat, in which a slave played by Michael K. Williams is stabbed to death by a seaman before being unceremoniously dumped into the water. Naturally there’s no account of this in Northup’s memoirs, as he and his fellow slaves were worth a lot of money, and the crew would not have jeopardized them in such a way.)
We are tantalizingly given just a couple of minutes of another ex-slave’s story when the action briefly switches to the nearby farm of Mr Shaw, whose mistress Harriet (Alfre Woodard) is black, but this is dropped before many details can be absorbed into the story. We are not party to conversations between Edwin and Mary, or between any other characters, unless Solomon is present. As a result every single supporting character is cast aside abruptly in the film at the point Northup exits their lives; the failure to revisit any of them at a later point is disappointing, though perfectly understandable.
While Northup’s story is a fascinating one, it’s infuriating that a happy ending still feels like a pre-requisite, presumably agreed well before the film’s budget was approved. It’s the spoonful of sugar to help the foul-tasting medicine go down. While accounts from American slaves containing such rich detail are rare, it seems predictable that one was chosen containing a relatively-positive ending. Perhaps a film about a man or woman dying while still enslaved would be even more hard-hitting, but would the same amount of people pay to watch it?
Ejiofor is excellent as the wronged man forced to endure over a decade in captivity, magnificently portraying Solomon’s quiet dignity, stoicism and inner strength in the face of abuse witnessed and suffered. When Northup’s face begins to crack amidst a group singing ‘Roll, Jordan Roll’ at a funeral the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, yet this is just one of many emotional scenes that the actor handles with considerable skill.
The quality of his performance is matched by both Fassbender and Nyong’o. Fassbender is superb as the monstrous plantation owner Epps, his appearance in the film incredibly taking the previous level of menace to a new height, despite the fact we only see him resorting to physical violence and abusive acts on a couple of occasions. As he singles Patsey out for praise for her cotton picking, or justifies his actions and status with religious fervour, the skin crawls. Nyong’o also excels as the female slave enduring abuse from both Edwin and Mary, at one point pleading with Solomon to kill her; it is a tremendous breakthrough performance, sincere and heartbreakingly sad.
The rest of the cast are mostly good. Dano, Cumberbatch and Giamatti all do well but have little time on screen to impact upon the movie in the same way as the three leads; I’d have happily seen more of all three characters. I very much enjoyed Sarah Paulson’s narrow-eyed Mary too; she is overshadowed somewhat by Fassbender, but is just as cruel and vindictive. Unfortunately Brad Pitt’s limited scenes near the end of the film jar with the preceding material. It’s not that his acting is bad, it’s just that he stands out as a real Hollywood icon: a movie star in a film of actors. While Cumberbatch, Dano and Giamatti all have distinctive physical appearances that make them instantly recognisable in any film, none of those three come with the same level of tabloid-y baggage as Pitt, who just serves to remind you that this is A Big Hollywood Film. And that’s unfortunate.
McQueen has put together a harrowing and unforgettable film with a strong cast. It is poetic, moving and at times beautifully shot, but all of that pales into insignificance when considering the overall necessity, vitality and importance of the film. It is a landmark picture because it tackles the issue of slavery head on, and focuses primarily on a man who was actually enslaved, rather than a cartoonish cowboy version of one or a politician that helped end the movement (despite Lincoln’s importance regarding the history of the slave trade in the US). But it also feels like concessions have been made in order to justify the movie’s budget and to ensure that enough people are attracted to their local cinema in order to watch it. The presence of Brad Pitt and the heart-tugging score composed by Hans Zimmer do not ruin the finished article, of course, but they are reminders that even stories like this must adhere to a certain framework, or follow certain crowd-pleasing rules. It might seem churlish to suggest that an uncompromising, challenging film could be even more uncompromising and challenging, but that’s how I felt as the house lights came on. It’s an important film, and it is well made, but I’m not convinced that it’s a masterpiece.
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley, Solomon Northup
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 133 minutes