Review: 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013)

Still from the movie 12 Years a Slave

I have already mentioned my pleasure at the wins that 12 Years a Slave received at the Oscars. I have long wanted to like this movie, even before I saw it, which just meant that the chances that I would actually like it when I did see it were slimmer than usual. Though perhaps “like” is the wrong word to choose for this painful (but historically accurate) film. Similar to The Act of Killing, perhaps I should just say it is a significant movie, one that should be watched.

But maybe it would have been impossible for this movie not to have won. Brilliantly, brilliantly acted and beautifully shot, 12 Years a Slave also had too much emotional and historical weight that to not recognize it would have felt like a violation, considering some of the light pieces it was up against. Several people have commented that Ellen DeGeneres was spot on when she joked, “Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists.” And IndieWire has suggested that 12 Years a Slave would win not because it’s the picture that Hollywood liked the best but because it’s the picture Hollywood wanted to like the best, or at least wanted to be seen as liking the best, which I suppose is another matter altogether.

Weightiness aside, if you take all the aspects of a film–the acting, the cinematography, the very important screenplay, even the sound (both ominous and jarring)–the effect is the most meaningful in 12 Years. It has nothing to do with the subject matter. 12 Years a Slave has the best story, and the story that is most well-told. Kudos to Steve McQueen for that.

(Digression: Let me take a moment to talk about stories, which to me really boils down to the screenplays. Hollywood is not that great at creating original narratives. That’s why the charming but deficient Her won Best Original Screenplay in a field of contenders so weak it took a moment of head-scratching for me to decide which was the least flawed (caveat: I haven’t seen Nebraska yet). Hollywood, however, can excel at choosing a compelling story from the pool of existing books and breathing life and imagination into it, sometimes with exciting, innovative results.)

It is true 12 Years a Slave is difficult to watch. How could it not be? And yet I would not say that the movie wallows in its brutality, except that with slavery there are little brutalities everywhere, and all of them are shown and felt in this film. It’s not a subtle movie, but it’s an unflinching one. And so we should not flinch either. If you haven’t already, watch it.

Movie poster featuring Brad Pitt in 12 Years a SlaveNote: What a disgraceful movie poster created by the film’s Italian distributor. It features Brad Pitt, who only has a bit part in the movie. They have since apologized and recalled the poster, but still!