I can’t really say I’ve been looking forward to writing this review, much in the same way that I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to see this latest film from director/misery-inducer Steve McQueen. But with all the (deserved) Oscar-hype and talent involved in this project, it seemed like something I should see. Which is really the only way I can sell a movie like 12 Years A Slave: it may not be a rip-roaringly fun time at the movies, but it’s really something you should see. Not only for the way it depicts slavery with a cringe-inducing honesty, but also in the way it offers an emotional release in regards to this atrocity.
Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years A Slave chronicles the unlikely story of Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man who was abducted and sold in to slavery. As you might expect, Northup’s intelligence and pride do him no favors in gaining favor with his new white masters, and things just get worse for Northup with every attempt he makes to keep his dignity in tact. He’s then more or less broken down to a nub of a man once he’s eventually sold to a sadistic plantation owner, played unflinchingly by Michael Fassbender.
For a movie that somehow exudes both “importance” and “art house flair”, 12 Years A Slave does have a surprising amount of star power. The likes of Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt all make appearances at some point in the film, and except for maybe Pitt–who’s kinda just doing his usual Brad Pitt thing–all disappear into the roles quite nicely. But the heart of the picture undeniably belongs to its star, Chiwitel Ejiofor, who takes full advantage of the kind of meaty role that he’s been long overdue for. The film as a whole isn’t terribly talky, but I think this works in favor of Ejiofor’s ability to internalize this man’s struggles, all while McQueen’s camera seems constantly zoned in on his weathered face.
I know this might seem a bit strange for a smaller scale film like this, but I think 12 Years A Slave is a film that should be seen in a theater, and I’m saying that almost purely based on my own experience. Walking in to the movie, I was pretty irritated to find myself surrounded by a fairly packed, and fairly noisy audience. But after about a half-hour into the film, the audience was completely silent, and by the end of it, I could distinctly hear grown men trying to hold back their tears, and I’ll admit I was right there along with them. And in this era where people keep on saying that television is now far superior to film, it’s nice to be getting movies like Gravity, and now 12 Years A Slave that remind us of the kind of communal aspect and the emotional catharsis that the medium is still capable of.