What is the purpose of movies? Is it to entertain? Is it to educate? To evoke an emotional response? Ideally all three. But there’s rarely money in anything other than the first. Therefore Hollywood spends most of its time and effort just worrying about the fun stuff. It’s easy to make a movie that’s pure, mindless entertainment and ignores every other consideration. Is it possible, then, to make a movie that both educates and evokes an emotional response and yet isn’t remotely entertaining? Of course. There’s a whole category of films that are brilliant examples of the art of filmmaking that I have no desire to ever see again—movies that I love, but don’t actually “like.” (Requiem for a Dream, for example.)
British auteur Steve McQueen has made a career out of creating dramas that are unimpeachable examples of superior directing and exemplary acting. And yet they are just about the least amount of fun you could ever have in a movie theater. First came 2008’s Hunger, a painfully exacting account of IRA protester Bobby Sands’ death by hunger strike in an Irish prison. Next came 2011’s Shame, an alienatingly methodical examination of sex addiction. Now, carrying with it some of the biggest buzz of McQueen’s career, comes 12 Years a Slave. It’s very likely the most brutally honest depiction of slavery in America ever made. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
Of course it doesn’t. That’s not the point. Based on the shocking autobiography by Solomon Northup, the goal of the film is to lay bare one of the bleakest periods of American history. And it does. With terrible skill and horrifying eloquence. Which begs the question: Why would anyone want to watch it?
Based on the shocking autobiography by Solomon Northup, the goal of the film is to lay bare one of the bleakest periods of American history. And it does. With terrible skill and horrifying eloquence. Which begs the question: Why would anyone want to watch it?
In the film Chiwetel Ejiofor (Amistad, Kinky Boots, American Gangster) stars as Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York living a happy, upper-middle-class lifestyle in the 1840s. One fateful day he is kidnapped from the loving arms of his family, spirited away to Washington, D.C. and illegally sold as a slave. He ends up in the pre-Civil War Deep South, working on a plantation for a semi-kindly but weak-willed man (Benedict Cumberbatch). When our dignified hero’s independent, overly educated ways put him in conflict with a mean-spirited overseer (Paul Dano), Northup is bounced from owner to owner like so much chattel. He ends up working his fingers to the bone in the cotton fields of one Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, star of McQueen’s previous film Shame). Epps is a cruelly mercurial, Bible-thumping drunkard under whose heavy whip hand our protagonist learns the depths of human mistreatment.
As in previous films, McQueen likes to linger in crucial moments, letting his camera run on shots of particular suffering or discomfort. In one scene our man Solomon is saved from a lynching—and yet he remains dangling, gasping for breath while dozens of fellow slaves pass by, too afraid to cut him down. The shot goes on painfully long. The film’s energy remains high, however, and the static observations of McQueen’s camera never become boring or pretentious—as they had a tendency to do in his first two films. Again, this could simply be a product of McQueen’s subject. Do we dare look away? In doing so, would we be ignoring the atrocities of our ancestors? (Or the atrocities inflicted on our ancestors, as the case may be?) Aren’t we obliged through guilt or curiosity or righteous indignation to pay close attention? That tension gives 12 Years a Slave much of its raw, mesmerizing impact.
It’s a hard sell, though. This is a terribly important film. No doubt about it. But its visceral intensity is going to be too much for a lot viewers to stomach. Think of it as a teaching tool. Think of it as a bracing dose of medication. Just don’t go into the theater thinking of it as entertainment. Because it’s something else entirely.
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