<Review by: Sailesh Ghelani>
Directed by Steve McQueen. With Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano
There have been many movies on the topic of slavery in America but 12 Years A Slave dispenses with the need to entertain or inspire replacing them instead with reflection and pathos.
That director Steve McQueen isn’t an American seems to be a point to be noted. Most other films about slavery like Amistad (Steven Spielberg), Lincoln (also by Spielberg) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) have always been more commercially made. They’ve had big name actors, a sweeping background score, motivational speeches, heroes, justice and a happy ending. But 12 Years A Slave isn’t quite like that.
Sure it has some big name actors and now that it has been nominated for 10 Oscar awards it’ll probably become quite a box office draw. But it’s not entertainment. It’s a serious drama, almost like a history lesson that focuses on the torturous tribulations of a man kidnapped and sold into slavery. This was at a time when slavery was going strong in the American South where cotton plantations thrived on the labours of these slaves and white ‘owners’ would run their black ‘property’ in to the ground, sometimes out of sheer sadistic pleasure.
Based on the memoirs of real life slave Solomon Northrup, 12 Years A Slave gives us a glimpse of Solomon’s life till he is tricked and sold into slavery, wrenching him from his life as a musician and craftsman with his wife and two children. His name is changed to Platt and he spends 12 years bonded to one ‘master’ after another; all experiences that poignantly show us a man who wanted to live and not just survive ultimately break and feel the helplessness of his situation.
In spite of reprieve from his condition there is no happy ending in 12 Years A Slave. In fact there is nothing happy at all about the film. Don’t expect to be entertained. Pain and agony are on display and director Steve McQueen takes his time to linger on these moments not for shock value but simply because these agonising moments took time even for the people who went through them. Particularly wrenching is a scene where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) dangles from a noose just barely off the ground with his toes wriggling in the mud trying to keep him from slumping and his neck breaking. Morning to night and the next dawn pass and life around him moves, kids play in the background, black slaves work their chores as he dangles, struggling for dear life: a powerful scene indeed.
At some points I had issues with the film. Even though it has won/been nominated for several awards it isn’t perfect. The lack of any entertainment value whatsoever can be excused. But I found camera angles to be a bit amiss: like a scene where Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a white slave master’s black wife, has tea with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). The camera focuses on the characters drinking the tea, the teacups to their mouths but completely devoid of any tea.
Now I know that most TV shows and movies do away with actual liquids in the teacups and coffee mugs since it leads to spillage and awkward milk moustaches but then camera angles and direction should account for this. I hate watching actors faux drinking and making sipping sounds from clearly empty teacups! And in this scene you can see all the way to the bottom of the cups. A bit picky, I know, but I’ve seen enough films to be able to say, ‘Come on, you could’ve gotten that right!’
What 12 Years A Slave is being lauded for is the realism with which it portrays one man’s horrendous ordeal. Yes there were white men who sympathised and black men in some states who were ‘free men’ (as long as they were declared so by their ‘masters’) but not until an American Civil War fought by President Lincoln against the Confederate States (7 slave states) and the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in those states did the blacks in America find true freedom. Because slavery didn’t just mean physical bondage. It also meant mental suppression since they were not allowed to read or write, even if they knew how.
I must mention Michael Fassbender’s performance, as the maniacal plantation owner Edwin Epps, is particularly powerful as his mercurial character shifts from moments of playfulness (drunken) to moments of passion (violent). Definitely Oscar worthy.
Producer Brad Pitt gets to play a small but almost heroic role, which does seem a tad forced though.
While the movie has followed the memoirs there are some scenes that are not true to the book but that doesn’t make this film any less impactful.
PS: While I appreciate the sentiment of 12 Years A Slave I do miss films like Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, American Beauty and Unforgiven for their endearing qualities that touched you, inspired you, wowed you and brought you to tears. While 12 Years is certainly powerful, it didn’t move me in any way other than educating me a bit more about how repulsively the white man used to (mis)treat people of other races.