Review

Is 12 Years a Slave Really a Historically Important and Powerful Film?

Steve McQueen's movie is a work that arouses both interest and respect, but the cinematic experience it offers is ultimately limited in terms of the artistic challenge the movie has set itself.

12 Years a Slave Directed by Steve McQueen; written by John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup; with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard

Two facts are above dispute: 12 Years a Slave, the third feature of British video artist Steve McQueen, is an historically important picture, and it’s also a powerful one. Unlike my usual practice, because of the movie’s subject matter I read some reviews by American critics I admire before writing my own. All of the reviewers were clearly excited by the very fact that the movie was made. “‘12 Years a Slave’ is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery,” writes The New Yorker’s David Denby, who, like other critics, sees McQueen’s movie as finally and decisively dethroning “Gone with the Wind,” which features frequently as one of the most popular movies of all times.

As almost all the reviews I read noted correctly, even though slavery is a powerfully remembered episode of American history, very few American movies have been made about it. The handful that were – from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), whose plot glorifies the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan, to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012) – have usually been melodramas of the romantic and often sensationalist kind (even Tarantino’s movie cannot be described as a serious work about slavery, given its emphasis on the mythic over the historical).

It is interesting that none of the reviews I read tried to explain the dearth of U.S. films about slavery; perhaps the reasons are so obvious to the writers that they seem self-evident. Movies about slavery are rare because white America, which has always dominated the film industry, tries to repress this part of its past; because racism continues to corrode America’s soul; and because there were economic reasons not to make such movies – and in America, economics always win.

If, during the classic Hollywood era, a studio had made a realistic movie about slavery featuring black heroes, the entire American South would have banned it (although movies about slavery remained rare even after the collapse of the studio system during the 1960s, when the civil rights struggle reached its peak and racial segregation was outlawed).

The reviewers I read apparently see McQueen’s movie as somehow liberating, because it deals with slavery without the romantic or sensational elements that have usually accompanied this topic, and also because it was made by a director who is both British and black.

That impression, though, is problematic and misleading, and together with the overall excitement, it prevented most of the critics I read from scrutinizing “12 Years a Slave” for its merits as a cinematic work. Even when they voiced reservations about the movie, their attitude toward it led them to pronounce it one of the most important films of our generation.

I cannot agree with this almost universal acclaim. While I recognize the movie’s historical importance – as well as its sweeping plot, many fine scenes and memorable images – “12 Years a Slave” still seems to me restricted by its nature as an effective example of popular mainstream cinema, albeit one directed with considerable talent.

McQueen’s previous movies, “Hunger” (2008) – also based on a true story – and “Shame” (2011), were not of the mainstream, popular variety, and he may have been right to make a different choice this time. It was the only way “12 Years a Slave” could appeal to a broad audience and be embraced by the establishment, two conditions without which its historical message would have been much more circumscribed. But because I greatly admired McQueen’s two previous movies, I was disappointed by the way “12 Years a Slave” focuses almost entirely on telling a story, and – with the exception of a few exquisite moments – does so with a directness that lacks all stylistic distinction.

McQueen’s film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, published in 1853, eight years before the start of the American Civil War. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist by trade, lives as a free man with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, NY. The stark difference between the free blacks of the north and the slaves of the south is one of the movie’s most effective aspects, and it finds expression in a highly impressive early scene in which a group of northern blacks silently watch a southern merchant arriving with his slave. In general, silence is one of McQueen’s most effective tools. In the south it means survival – for example, when one slave is tortured while the others carry on their work as though this horror were not happening right before them.

Solomon meets two men who work for a traveling circus, who convince him to go for a ride with them. They get him drunk and he wakes up to find himself a prisoner; he is then shipped to Louisiana and sold into slavery. The first plantation owner he works for, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), treats his slaves with some decency but, due to a debt incurred, Solomon ends up the property of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic alcoholic who owns a cotton plantation.

“12 Years a Slave” follows Solomon’s struggle to survive, a struggle that also involves a certain silence – in his case, concealing his real name and identity, and the fact he can read and write. Some of the movie’s best scenes are between Solomon and Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson), who is bitter about her husband’s relationship with one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o); Mrs. Epps does somehow understand that Solomon is not like the other slaves, but prefers to ignore this recognition.

Solomon’s survival unfolds as a series of scenes, some of them very graphic in their horror, others more implicit, and most designed with a simplistic and rather uniform candor. In the movie’s best scene, Solomon, having dared to defend himself against a power-hungry foreman (Paul Dano), is punished by being hanged from a tree with his feet just barely touching the ground; one slip and he dies. McQueen focuses on this image for a long time from a static position, and it is the one moment in “12 Years a Slave” that brings to mind his previous work and has something more to say stylistically than the rest of the film. And that is why this scene, much more than others, will be remembered.

As I’ve said, “12 Years a Slave” is a powerful movie. It has earned this adjective, but to me that is one of the less artistically significant compliments a film can be paid. Solomon’s story is unavoidably engaging, and therefore watching the movie has power. Also, the cast, led by Ejiofor, does a very believable job. Nevertheless, for all the movie’s good scenes and poignant moments, something is missing from it, so that its power did not stay with me long after I exited the theater.

That “something” is any kind of artistic cinematic vision that goes beyond historical documentation. Here and there, traces of such a vision can be detected, but because they are not developed consistently, they disappear into the whole. “12 Years a Slave” is a work that arouses both interest and respect, but the cinematic experience it offers, though powerful, is ultimately limited in terms of the artistic challenge the movie has set itself, and the means by which it has pursued its goals.

AP