I’ve been wrestling with this review for several weeks. I wanted to get it just right. 12 Years a Slave is, simply, one of the best films I have ever seen, and it deserves the extra attention. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) rapidly becoming one of the most compelling filmmakers working, and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (no longer “that guy from Love Actually”), Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt, plus a who’s-who of actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy and relative newcomers Quvenzhane Wallis and Adepero Oduye, and a break-out performance by Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years is a movie in which the smallest roles are occupied by tremendous actors. The result is a compellingly real recreation of the worst of American history; like Schindler’s List making the horrors of the Holocaust tangible, 12 Years a Slave brings slavery to awful, crushing life.
There are two ways to review this film—and it is very much a film, not a movie—the first of which is on a strictly filmmaking level. This is McQueen’s third film, and it’s his best yet. He started out as a good filmmaker with a natural and interesting eye, and in each outing he has grown more confident and assured in his choices. He’s an actor’s director, coaxing brilliant, emotionally wrenching performances from his cast without ever leading any of them into melodrama, but he’s also a visual director. He reminds me of Wes Anderson like that—great performances and actors chewing around good dialogue, but also interesting and richly realized visual environments. Like Anderson, McQueen’s direction is mannered. He’s not remotely twee or whimsical, but there’s a similarity in the deliberateness of camera placement and careful composition of shots. On a purely filmmaking level, I get it if someone says 12 Years isn’t their bag. Some people just don’t like that kind of theatricality in cinema.
But then there is the second way of viewing 12 Years a Slave, which transcends whatever filmmaking complaints can be levied against it (which are few and would boil down to “I don’t like the director’s style”), and that is as a piece of living history. On this level, 12 Years is unassailable. It is a brutal, unflinching, relentless and emotionally ruthless look at life in the ante-bellum south. It is horror heaped upon horror, tragedy and travesty and a bitter, sick, inexorable realism. It is more like the reality of slavery than anything I’ve read or seen before, even Roots. 12 Years is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and spent twelve years in Louisiana as a slave. His memoir is worth reading as well, but there is something about seeing Northup’s story unfold that is gutting in a way the book is not. That’s the power of cinema—to make visceral the imagined.
McQueen’s camera never falters; he unrelentingly thrusts every degradation and depravation of slavery at us, from the casual disregard of Northup’s personhood to the repeated rape of Patsey, who has the misfortune of not only being a slave but also being the object of her owner’s lust. Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup is incredible, but it’s Nyong’o’s turn as Patsey that is most haunting, her actualization of a person hollowed out by circumstance and cruelty is complete and devastating. McQueen never lets us look away, but where this could become confrontational, it is rooted in such deep humanity that it never crosses that line. It’s painful, yes, but so is lancing an infected wound.
The inescapable truth of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery infected every single person who lived under its shadow, white or black, free or slave, north or south. It was like a sickness, and everyone was ill. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Ford, a man who passes for a “kindly” plantation owner. But he isn’t kind, not really, he’s just not as outwardly monstrous as Michael Fassbender’s Epps, a man who is being eaten alive by his own twisted morality and self-loathing. No one is exempt from the moral swamp created by slavery. Short of actual time travel, 12 Years a Slave is, to date, our best opportunity to bear witness to our inescapable history. But as brutal and ugly as that history is, the message of 12 Years is ultimately one of perseverance and hope. We’re still recovering, but we are recovering.