Directed by: Steve McQueen || Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas
Screenplay by: John Ridley || Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard
Music by: Hans Zimmer || Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt || Editing by: Joe Walker || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 134 minutes
One of the earliest critical favorites of 2013’s holiday season is British director Steve McQueen’s historical drama of the pre-Civil War era American south, which details the kidnapping of free-born African-American Solomon Northup and his subsequent twelve year-long nightmare as he is sold into slavery in Louisiana. The film has made famous the historical account on which it is based, Northup’s autobiography of the same name.
Upon seeing the film and researching its widespread critical acclaim, I admit to being embarrassed at having never before heard of its director, McQueen, the leader of two other well received feature-length projects: Shame (2011), a narrative about sexual addiction, and 2008’s Hunger, a picture detailing the events of the Irish Republican Army hunger-strike of the 1980’s. Both feature longtime collaborator and rising star Michael Fassbender, and all three have made Steve McQueen a director to watch.
First things first, though — if you’re looking for comfortable viewing or a fun movie to pass the time with friends, this isn’t it. 12 Years is without a doubt one of the hardest films to watch I have ever seen, being both graphically violent and frank in its depiction of American slavery. The dehumanizing practices are gruesome, disgusting, and extremely uncomfortable for viewers despite being shot with skilled precision courtesy of McQueen. 12 Years is artistic cinema at its most personal and unapologetic. It is not meant for entertainment in any form beyond its ability to capture a fascinating (and depressingly bleak) period in human history. This movie turned my girlfriend to tears, and not at all in the manner of a film like Titanic (1997). You have been warned.
With that out of the way, we can discuss the movie. The technical aspects of 12 Years are striking both in their style and in their effectiveness. Close-up and extreme close-ups are ubiquitous and almost continuous throughout much of the first half before the cameras gradually pull back and McQueen finally lets the frame breathe a bit, taking in gorgeous shots of Louisiana bayous and massive southern plantations, establishing a historic and beautiful hellish landscape. My interpretation of McQueen’s heavy use of in-your-face cinematography, similar to the camerawork of Les Miserables (2012) but more effective, was an intention of building a claustrophobic, intense mood that permeates throughout the film’s terrorized characters and settings. It is a plan that succeeds far more than it fails.
Sound also functions critically in this construction of tension and unsettling danger. Non-diegetic music is used sparingly but effectively in combination with lush, passionate songs sung by the many slave-characters throughout the story. The sound-editing highlights the film’s emotional core as well.
As for the most crucial piece of the puzzle, the characters, well, they have a wide range. The film’s protagonist in Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn’t as interesting as he should be given the story’s immense focus on him. We certainly feel sorry for him and sympathize with his plight (how could we not?), but his development is limited and we don’t learn much about his character over his long journey. The most interesting characters are in fact supporting roles by Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. Fassbender plays a malicious, sadistic plantation-owner, Edwin Epps, who quotes Scripture to justify his horrific treatment of his “property” and acts as the primary antagonist and personification of southern American slavery, the physical embodiment of ignorant, twisted human rights-abuses incarnate. His character is fascinating while at the same time repulsive, played with disturbing precision by Fassbender. Arguably the most despicable aspect of his character is his warped “affection” for Nyong’o’s character, Patsey. Aside from suffering repeated sexual assaults at the hands of Epps, Nyong’o’s character also endures one of the most shocking and difficult to watch beatings in cinematic history, a vicious whipping that is filmed with horrifying craft, haunting focus, and emotional power.
Many of the other supporting characters turn in good performances as well, and most of them feature either better development or more interesting dialogue than Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Northup. Paul Dano’s abusive overseer is worth a shoutout, as is Sarah Paulson’s creepy turn as Epps’ equally cruel and twisted wife. Even Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t take his limited screen-time for granted and showcases an interesting take on a more compassionate, yet equally ignorant slave master.
Altogether, 12 Years is a fascinating piece of historical dramatization and one of the most eye-opening re-imaginings of the antebellum American South. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie joins the ranks of similar minded features, such as Schindler’s List (1993), frequently shown in schools for their honest depiction of cruelty and human rights abuses throughout history. For all the time spent on Ejiofor’s hero, writer John Ridley should’ve crafted a more introspective and personal tale, but given all the vibrancy in the rest of the cast and McQueen’s technical execution, Northup’s lack of development is forgivable, and 12 Years remains a fine film. See it if you can stomach it, and let’s all agree to keep a close eye on McQueen’s next venture.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Technically bold and stylistically powerful, 12 Years a Slave utilizes its many close-ups and cinematic vistas to paint a hauntingly beautiful landscape of suffering and violent American history. The story is further bolstered by a strong supporting cast, none more notable than Michael Fassbender as a ruthless, sadistic slave owner. The German-born Irishman settles into the worst of American tradition with startling ease.
— However… for all his sympathetic plights through the horrors of slavery, Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup possess little in the way of interesting character-study, somewhat limiting the emotional power of the film as its artistic center.
? Fun Fact: Michael K. Williams (aka Omar Little of The Wire [2002-2008]) is in this for five seconds.