12 Years as a Slave tells the powerful story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was kidnapped by slavers and sold into bondage in the South from 1841-1853. The film tells the story of those 12 years as Northup is sold from a master with about the maximum morals a Southern slave-owning plantation runner had in 1841 (Benedict Cumberbatch, now officially in all movies) to his polar opposite: a maniacal monster (played with vicious abandon by Michael Fassbender). It’s an incredible story of the human will to survive in deepest scar on the soul of our country’s history. The performances are stellar (especially Ejiofor and Fassbender), but the movie as a whole was…wierd.
It’s hard to be critical at all of the story of someone who has gone through Hell’s fires on Earth like Northup did and I in NO way want to give the impression that this is not an important film or one that shouldn’t be compulsion viewing for every American. We did this. Maybe it wasn’t us, personally. Maybe it wasn’t even our ancestors. Mine, at that time, were eating a high-potato diet in Ireland and having a mini-version of all this being done to us by the English (thanks for that). Part of being an American, though, is taking on the responsibility of the country past, present and future. As we are responsible for interpreting the Founding Fathers’ wisdom, so are we responsible for their sins and their legacy. We need to be reminded of history so it doesn’t repeat itself. That goes for the Holocaust, slavery, the Inquisition and war. I am of the opinion that these reminders need to be stark and accurate. War movies where a guy clutches his chest and falls over, sicken me. That’s not war. War is the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (and even that cannot convey the smell, the tactile trauma, etc.).
This film is firmly of the opinion I hold as well. In fact, one of my problems is I think it goes overboard. Every manner of human cruelty and degradation was doled out to Solomon and his companions. From roughly 15 minutes in through the end of the film, it’s nearly non-stop horror and cruelty. My problem with that is not showing it. My problem is that it’s basically all the film shows.
I spent 2 hours and 21 minutes with Solomon and all I learned about him as a person is that he loved his family, he was a survivor above all and he was a talented fiddle player. That’s it. The film makes no effort to make Northup anything more than the vehicle for showing the cruelty of the plantation system. It’s not like there’s no information on Northup. He wrote the account the film is based upon. I wanted to know him. I wanted to get to know what kind of man this was, beyond-clearly-an extraordinary survivor. There is no character development and the reason why that is so important in a film like this is that eventually any human becomes inured to horror. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s how people survive thinks like Solomon did on a much smaller scale, but if all the viewer sees is Solomon beaten, betrayed, sold, mistreated and degraded, the viewer has to have some context for caring about him; connecting with him or the fabric of the film has nothing to bind it together.
I also thought McQueen’s direction was …odd. Scenes were just thrown out there. No more so is this evident in the beginning of the film in which a strange and disturbing event happens and then has no relevance later in the film. It’s just out there. There were too many star cameos where a big star would come in, have one scene, drop a bunch of N-bombs and you never see them again. It’s distracting from the narrative.
The strong point of this film are the performances, most especially by Solomon and Epps (Fassbender), both of whom more than deserve Oscar consideration. This isn’t a classic, though. It’s a film whose craft is flawed and is ultimately redeemed by the quality of the performances it contains. Something like this should stick with me forever, but I’m afraid it’s already fading from my consciousness and that’s a missed opportunity for impacting American film goers that’s irredeemable.