Film review: 12 Years a Slave

 Title: 12 Years a Slave
Year: 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt
12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave is director Steve McQueen’s third feature film following Hunger and Shame and was written by John Ridley (U Turn, Three Kings). Based on true events, taken from the protagonist’s memoirs, it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York during America’s pre-civil war decades. Northup was captured and sold to slavers in New Orleans for twelve years before being rescued and returned home.

12 Years is a harrowing, fascinating and shameful recital of this epoch in recent history. McQueen does the subject matter justice, as one would expect. This is a solid film…yet something is missing.

To begin on the positive, and there is lots to draw from. Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o give stunning performances, you could probably call them perfect. The set design and attention to historical detail is second to none, from the colours of the cotton fields, to the constant beads of sweat betraying the southern heat, to the straw hats, mud stains and log cabins. The viewer is invited into the world of blood, sweat and tears that is slavery. McQueen’s past as an artist is, of course, forever present and notable. In the slave ship bringing them to the servitude of south, from the freedom of north, McQueen adopts Caravaggio inspired light and shade, as they get inextricably further into the deep dark shackles of bondage.

Yet, where Hunger is a piece of art, a slightly avant-garde and quite stylized piece of work, 12 Years is cinematic in a more traditional and accessible sense. He lets the camera linger (a device fast becoming McQueen’s trade mark) but not long enough. In Hunger it lingers until you itch, you can’t stand it, you beg him to stop, it’s excruciating because he is portraying something excruciating. Time moves so slowly in prison. In 12 Years, it cuts just before we quite get there. We need to feel that pain, to be uncomfortable, to feel anxious.

12 Years is a good-looking film, the lighting and cinematography, the colours. But I wanted more. I wanted lens glare, orange light, long shots and super close ups. In Hunger there are so many perfectly symmetrical, grey-toned shots, to put you in prison, to make you feel the oppressive structure of being imprisoned, the claustrophobia, the lack of freedom or flexibility. I don’t remember anything like that from 12 Years. It looks beautiful and this is juxtaposed with gritty violence and blood, which works quite well on a level. But this is the least we expect from McQueen.

With McQueen there is an expectation of artistic ability, to get the deepest feeling across by drumming the emotion into you, something intangible, something expressed by the visual through the transcendence of it, his use of dialogue (or lack thereof), his use of continuous takes, the camera waiting patiently. The moment when Northup ‘becomes’ a slave (when he starts to sing at a fellow slave’s funeral) is reminiscent of this, the pure emotion, the focus on the eyes, the shift in his demeanour from stoicism to emotive loud singing. But even this was too quick and too obvious.

The relationship between Ejiofor as Northup and Fassbender as Epps, his main slave ‘master’, is probably the most important of the film. We are given a glimpse into Epps’ impossible love for Nyong’o and biblical fetishes, but this could have been better explored with a little more depth from Epp’s perspective. Did Epps feel divinely justified to beat and rape her, or just to own her? Did he have moments of conflict? His tears during the rape scene touch on this, he wipes them away and slaps her, but more would have been interesting. The character was so fascinating and unbelievable, we needed something more insightful relating to his humanity.

12 Years is a solid film. It is entertaining, thought provoking and quite brilliant in terms of performances and overall direction. But I think I should have been reeling from it for days, I should have been dreaming about it and obsessing over it, wanting more and yet scared to explore it – how and why we did this, so recently, so horrifically and incomprehensibly. I thought about it a little the day after I saw it and not too much since.

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