Confronts where others avoid.
Despite their obvious qualities, many recent films that ostensibly deal with slavery in the United States do anything but; Lincoln was about seizing a pivotal historic moment while slyly pointing out similarities to modern-day politics, and Django Unchained was just about revenge (and about, oh, 45 minutes too long). For both, slavery was just the backdrop for otherwise great (but flawed) movies, while the full implications and effects of selling and owning another human being as property were left hanging. And no wonder; it’s easier for filmmakers to assume that the audience is already against slavery (which they really should be) and get right to the story than it is to get to the bottom of why anybody would willingly participate in that barbarity. It’s an understandable shortcut, but still a shortcut.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, meanwhile, is the most direct, confident confrontation of slavery seen in the mainstream in years. With its philosophical-yet-accessible dialogue, career-defining performances, and rarely seen clarity of purpose, McQueen treats his film’s fact-based story as deeper than the sum of injustices experienced by Solomon Northup, a free-born black man from Saratoga Springs who was drugged, kidnapped, and sold in Washington, DC in 1841 as a slave named Platt. This is the story of Solomon’s physical and existential enslavement—not just the story of what happened while he was a slave—with all of the violence, shame, paranoia, despair, and occasional hope that comes with it.
Of the film’s assets—huge performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Benedict Cumberbatch, not to mention John Ridley’s script and what may be Hans Zimmer’s best score to date—the most vital turns out to be McQueen’s background in fine arts and experimental shorts. The dialogue may be heightened, and the cinematography may be stylized, but the intellectualism is never an obstacle. McQueen understands that his BFA doesn’t mean he has extra license to get arty and pretentious, it means the onus is on him to effectively distill complex issues without losing the layers that make them important.
The best and most revolutionary thing about 12 Years a Slave is how it accomplishes all of the above without a trace of the usual Hollywood helping of liberal guilt; the hoary, heavy-handed way studios constantly make movies about how racism is bad but concern themselves first and foremost with how bad white people feel about it. Think of how Lincoln left Frederick Douglass out of the story of abolition and The Help was Emma Stone making her first black friend. This is one of Hollywood’s most annoying habits that pervades in the absence of analysis. The characters of 12 Years a Slave all experience the same system, but view it differently and act according to their own understanding; some slaves are concerned primarily with survival, some fight back, some submit to despair. The slaveowners act differently towards the slaves depending on if they view them as personal property or as a necessarily evil in their industry. But even the nicest slaveowner in the world is still a fucking slaveowner, and the most willing slave is still not free.
Solomon suffers greatly for the misfortune of being black in the wrong century, but McQueen never exploits his plight for dramatic points. The threat of what might happen to him if he makes a single misstep, knowing that his survival story is an exception, is what weighs the heaviest. If 12 Years a Slave doesn’t become required viewing in our schools and Lincoln does, the understanding future generations have of slavery is doomed.
12 YEARS A SLAVE | RATED R | IN THEATERS NOW