Thoughts on “12 Years a Slave”

I finally went and watched Steve McQueen’s latest film “12 years a slave”.  McQueen (the director, no relation to the actor from the 1960s) made two previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame”  which, like this one, are complex portraits of male martyrdom. “Shame” veered a bit too close to melodrama for me and “Hunger” had a flawless first half that was followed by a flawed second half. I think 12 years a slave is McQueen’s strongest work yet.

Before going to see the film, I sought out some negative reviews to give me a sense of the film’s shortcomings. After watching the film though, I think most of the criticisms were off base. I’m going to go through my defence of the film. It isn’t flawless, and I’ll get to my issues with the film, but overall I think it is well worth your time. (spoilers follow).

Criticism 1: The film is over-directed. I do not think this is the case at all and it is actually much better than McQueen’s other works in this regard. Although I still love McQueen’s first film “Hunger”, there is an intentional showiness to that film that is a bit distracting. For example, the first half of Hunger barely has any dialogue , which is suddenly interrupted by a 12 minute long conversation between two characters.  I loved the transition the first time I saw Hunger, but on subsequent viewings I found it ruined the immersion created by the claustrophobic prison scenes that preceded, and marked the beginning of the much less interesting second half of the film. 12 years a slave is a much more immersive experience, with fewer jarring reminders that I am watching a film. In particular I am very impressed with the way it dealt with the lead character’s enslavement (and eventual release) with fantastic economy. The majority of the film is spent in conveying an unvarnished portrait of slavery and slave owning societies.

Criticism 2: The soundtrack is overdone. Some critics felt that the use of music in the film is a bit on the nose. I can’t excuse the film entirely- at the start there are a few scenes accented with string bits that are a bit overdone. Strings tend to make a scene seem a bit more melodramatic than need be. That said, I love the film’s use of Colin Stetson’s haunting “Awake on Foreign Shores”

The most powerful scenes in the film are without music, in particular a horrific whipping scene, which uses little more than crying and the sound of leather against flesh to make its point. 

Criticism 3: The celebrity cameos were distracting. With all the prestige actors attached to the film I was scared it was going to turn into Amistad or something equally terrible. Despite my concern, the cameos were short and generally strong. While it would be nice to get a fantastic performance out of an unknown actor, but why take the risk? I’m glad McQueen got someone trustworthy and amiable to play a the nice Canadian (Brad Pitt). The only cameo that bugged me was Omar (Michael K. Williams) showing up out of the blue and then being dispatched with equally expeditiousness.

What worked?

The focus on a single character and portrayal of space: Much of the film takes place within a very claustrophobic universe- tight shots, close ups. I particularly liked how the viewer gradually gets a better sense of the fields, yard and porches of the plantations where the film takes place, but it barely ever takes us inside the big house and doesn’t show us what the town Solomon visits regularly looks like. It very effectively conveys the psychological imprisonment of a slave. Of special mention is the harrowing scene of Fassbender and Ejiofor standing in the field, cheek to cheek, illuminated by lantern light.

Focussing on the corruption of the whole slave culture and society: I think Fassbender’s sadistic Epps shows how psychologically complicated being a ‘slave owner’ was-  it replicated and intensified abusive family dynamics and patriarchal systems. But it also shows how complex and hierarchal southern slavery was in practice, as slaves used their position to obtain whatever favour they could for survival. This isn’t to say that the film is without one dimensional villains- the slavers who abduct Solomon are little more than moustache twirling villains, but I didn’t mind that because it thrust both the viewer and Solomon into slavery abruptly and shockingly.

Condemnation of ‘good men’: The excruciating near lynching by a somewhat sympathetic overseer makes a brutal point- many slave owners may have abhorred sadistic cruelty for its own sake, but still liberally used terror and demonstration violence to maintain command and control. Small kindness does not exculpate a larger evil. I think that point is both obvious but important to be reminded of.  At the same time, I am glad McQueen didn’t go full Lars Von Trier and remove the possibility of good people existing- at points I was scared that the film was going to turn into ‘Breaking the Wave’s’ because every attempt at escape by Solomon is rewarded by a betrayal. All the more reason I didn’t mind the sudden appearance of Brad Pitt.

The main thing I did not like about the film:

On the nose speeches and symbols: I think my biggest issue with the film is that it tried to be an essay on slavery and its ongoing contemporary relevance and being a piece of art that stands on its own. For the most part it straddles that gap well, but a few shots and speeches stuck out for me. The shot that pans between Solomon crying out for help and the US Congress was far too early and far too blunt for me, though accurate historically. Many of the speeches felt like they were directed to the audience, rather than dialogue between characters- in particular one speech referring to a plague that will befall the plantation elite. The whole film foreshadowed the coming US Civil War, so I doubt the audience needed to be reminded. The shot of the white dolls and the black dolls also didn’t really jive with the more subtle moments in the film. That said, I really appreciated how the film used violence- it emphasized the humanity of people doing the violence and having violence done to them. McQueen manages to capture the pain, horror and submission on people’s faces which makes difficult scenes all the more searing. McQueen does not spare the audience gruesome images of torn flesh, but shows it only after the worst of the violence has passed, which increases its  impact.

Anyways, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film.

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Thoughts on “12 Years a Slave”

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