Victoria Jelinek

12 Years a Slave

12-Years-a-Slave-Movie-PosterCirca 1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga N.Y., earning his living as a violinist. He is lured to Washington DC by two entertainers promising work. After a night of drinking with them, Northup wakes up in chains and is sold into slavery. Following Solomon’s kidnapping, he’s owned by different plantation owners. The first offers him some responsibility, some kindness, and a violin, and consequently might be the most brutal of Northrup’s owners. It is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), however, who is the most colorfully cruel. Fassbender introduces Epps as a sadistic drunk, but he becomes a more complex character as the tense relationship with his wife (Sarah Paulson) and his self-loathing are revealed and manifested in his obsessive affection for a young slave girl.

12 Years a Slave is an absorbing film – intelligent and starkly severe. In line with director Steve McQueen’s background as a fine artist, it is also beautiful. Practically every shot could be a still photograph or a painting. There is gorgeous metaphorical imagery in contrast with the violent and physical reality for the slaves. And, as is evidenced in his previous films, McQueen does not shy from human physicality, with scenes, here, of beating, lovemaking, and working, which are visceral, humiliating, and horrifying. This adaptation could have been a feel-good film, a survivor-who-beats-the-odds sort-of-thing, but it’s not, which is appreciated. From the ‘get-go’ this film is despair incarnate that does not make you feel like crying by its conclusion, but, rather, leaves you stupefied.

This is not a common evocation today. I applaud McQueen’s effort, and I value the skill of his refined and remote approach while dealing with potentially incendiary subject matter. But it is for the same reasons that 12 Years a Slave is being heralded as a masterpiece – its ‘objective’ gaze, its aesthetic, its treatment of the subject matter- that I have issue with…the film feels self-conscious, contrived, and didactic. What feels fresh and authentic about this film is its cast: the hero, Chiwetel Ejiofor, his tormentor, Michael Fassbender, the cruel wife, Sarah Paulson, the hideous slave broker, Paul Giamatti, and even Brad Pitt’s Canadian abolitionist (though I swear he begins the scenes he’s in with a southern U.S. accent and ends with a northern one).