I haven’t met anyone who said they liked director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Many call it a good movie, but I wonder if it’s possible to like a film as unsentimentally brutal as this. At the same time, although I have nothing bad to say about the film, it didn’t affect me on the level of great film art; its images and themes don’t resonate like The Godfather, or Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, and I wonder why.
Movie brutality almost always serves one of two purposes. It provides motivation for revenge, e.g. Tarantino, or it highlights the noble character of a martyr (think Mel Gibson’s torture porn.) Tarantino particularly comes to mind, with Django Unchained still freshly reeking. To his thinking, reinforced throughout popular culture, great wrongs must be righted by great wrongs. Our expectation for payback is such that we’re short circuited when it doesn’t come.
Steve McQueen does two canny things with 12 Years a Slave. First, his story offers little in the way of redemption. It has the unhappiest of happy endings, and again the Pavlovian moviegoing response is denied. We’re too aware of everything that has been lost. Second, and crucially, we are not invited to identify with the protagonist. This is honest – most people watching the film haven’t been kidnapped and sold into slavery. The alternative is to relate to the masters – the plantation owners and their overseers. (If you wait long enough, you can associate with Brad Pitt, playing a Canadian with abolitionist sympathies. He’s part of the true story, but it feels like the money people wanted a bona fide movie star in a pivotal role. It’s forgivable.)
Many observers will find themselves in the awkward position of witnessing scrupulous renderings of immense wrongdoing, without being able to personally relate to the participants. Emotional distance is fostered. The obvious questions, such as what similar evils do we participate in today, are buried deep within the material. I don’t fault McQueen for it – I prefer his approach to a sentimental one, which would feel dishonest, or to a postmodern angle like Tarantino’s. Perhaps I need to develop new cinematic pleasure receptors.
There is much to admire. I was struck by the amazing sound design, which subtly enforces a constant sense of place. McQueen holds scenes longer than we are accustomed to – after the dialogue ends and the action seems concluded, time continues to pass; it’s uncomfortable yet nothing feels extraneous. John Ridley’s screenplay finds an interesting throughline via music: how it inspires, and can also be a tool or even a weapon. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great and Lupita Nyong’o is amazing. Their set piece near the end, when Solomon is forced to whip Patsey, will haunt you.
The postscript of the film is perhaps most damning, because it speaks to evil that continues today. After Solomon Northup regained his freedom, he sued his abductors. The courts, bowing to power, denied him the opportunity to testify and held harmless all who had wronged him. This movie should be seen, not to regret what has gone before, but to become aware of what still must be done.