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12 Years a Slave

February 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director: Steve McQueen
Actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

12yearsaslave1-300x187.jpg (300×187)

Synopsis: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black free man in 1840s New York, is kidnapped and sold into the Southern slave trade. Northup endures hard times over the subsequent twelve years, bounced around between different plantations and owners, before finally sensing a chance for freedom….

Review: Indulge me a touch on this one, but Steve McQueen’s dirge on the institution of slavery, 12 Years a Slave, at times bore an uncanny resemblance to that other zealous, agenda-laden film about saintly suffering – Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Now ultimately McQueen’s film has far more depth than Mel Gibson’s fairly infantile exposition of the mythology of his belief system, but I find the comparison instructive in ascribing why, at times, I was put off by the tyranny of McQueen’s vision. The opening thirty minutes of 12 Years a Slave in particular is told with an almost classic horror movie grammar – there’s very little backstory or nuance, as McQueen compels hero Solomon Northup on a vile trajectory of kidnap, brutality and dehumanisation.

In fact, the viscerality of the violence subjected on the slaves is a recurrent feature of the film, and while I have no problem at all with McQueen showing the effects of the sadistic acts in all their gory detail (as after all these incidents did happen and that’s how the injuries would have looked on a human body), it’s almost as if it’s close to the sum total of McQueen’s directorial tactics. Surely, horrendous violence was a rarity rather than the norm, and McQueen might have been better served by homing in on the greater tragedy of slavery – namely that it was institutional dehumanisation, a subjugation of an entire race, and that in many respects, the canvas of slavery was more insidious and depressing: slaves were resigned to their fate, made to feel like second-class citizens from birth (if born into slavery), and most of the slave-owners were not sadistic, sexually-depraved maniacs, but probably far more paternalistic, condescending, seeing their ‘ownership’ of slaves as one level up from having livestock.

McQueen does hint at this, at times, through the hook of having an intelligent, Northern free man the focus for the depiction of slavery, and through having scenes where the docility and limited agency of the slaves becomes heartbreakingly apparent (none of them could even conceive of going to Solomon when he is gasping for breath in a noose after a failed lynching). How much more radical though, if McQueen had based his depiction of slavery around a Southern man, and one who didn’t suffer from overt brutality – maybe that would be an even greater ‘tragedy’?

Still, there is a lot to commend McQueen for in 12 Years a Slave. At least he’s attempting to bring to light a major, dark chapter in American history that is currently so under-documented cinematically, and he is unquestionably a great technical filmmaker. He’s rightly lauded for his expert pictorial eye, but I particularly liked a scene that honoured the spirit of Solomon as a musician. During one of his many stints where he’s patronisingly made to play the violin for the ruling Southern aristocracy, McQueen fades out his actual violin playing for a non-diegetic violin score (a beautiful composition by Hans Zimmer) that radiates the true spirit and nobility of Solomon. (February 2014)

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