First, 12 Years a Slave played at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals to an overwhelmingly positive response. Critics said it was going to be remembered as a landmark, audiences loved it too (it won the Audience Award at Toronto) and Oscar prognosticators deemed the race over: this was the film to beat. The film was talked about a lot since those screenings, but in a rather sad turn, the conversations mostly centered on whether or not a film with such a raw approach to a very delicate subject is going to win the Oscar. Limiting the conversation about a movie (especially one as conversation-worthy as this one) is always frustrating, but when it is limited to a question of Awards-frontrunner, it also hurts the film, making it feel overpraised even before people have actually had the chance to see it. This is how in the last couple of days leading up to the release of 12 Years a Slave I found the internet to be full of negative or lackluster reactions to the film. The criticism was, for the most part, the same: 12 Years a Slave is a crude portrait of evil that shows how terrible slavery was without saying anything we didn’t know already. I can’t disagree with the first part of that statement -this is the most disturbing experience I’ve had at the movies this year – but I wholeheartedly disagree with the second.
Before becoming a movie, Twelve Years a Slave was a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man who in 1841 was captured and sold into slavery. As you might have already concluded, he remained a slave for twelve years, experiencing or witnessing all the characteristic horrors of that terrible institution before he could return to his wife and kids. In the movie, Solomon is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who you have probably seen in a supporting role here or there, in a career-best performance. Being based on an autobiographical source, the movie is highly episodic and features a lot of well-known actors in the supporting roles: Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Michael Fassbender and producer Brad Pitt are all featured in supporting roles.
British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) comes from a background in visual arts, having been a video artist before making the jump to features. This is his third film and even if the material he is adapting is much more straightforward in structure than his two previous films, he remains linked to installation and video art. I think it is better to approach 12 Years a Slave as you would an art installation or an experimental piece of film. The reaction I got was closer to what I could get from an effective museum piece than any other movie I have seen. First a visceral, completely emotional shock and second, a series of unsettling questions that lead to mostly depressing or infuriating conclusions.
There have been many great films dealing with race, but surprisingly few that take on slavery and even fewer that have attempted to recreate the horrors people went through in this period as closely as McQueen does here. The violence is relentless and terrifying. McQueen and his collaborators do an extremely effective work of putting the audience in a deeply unsettling mood and a constant state of stress over what could detonate the next wave of violence (and how far it would go). Is as close as I think a movie has put its audience in the shoes of the victims of slavery.For example, the fact that the audience I saw this with felt the need to applaud at many moments. They were all moments in which Solomon asserted his humanity and they were almost without exception followed by horrifying repercussions. Cheering was continually interrupted with violence. As a physical experience, the movie is an attack on the senses and on our sensibility as people from the XXI Century. My stomach was turned and I still can’t shake the feeling of disturbance the movie got out of me.
After the initial reaction, though, my mind turned to the details. By the time the movie was over I was overwhelmed and I didn’t know what to think of it. I certainly didn’t like it, I was shaken and uncomfortable. It was the examination of the details in the movie and its filmmaking choices made me admire it as more than a sensorial experience. The episodic structure, the casting of well-known actors and McQueen’s preference for long scenes and abrupt cuts work to raise a number of questions about slavery, humanity and absolute truths. In every scene, no matter how horrifying or overwhelming, I always found weird nuances and details that sparked unanswered thoughts in my mind. For example: What do you make of the quick way in which Solomon an lose or gain his freedom? Or the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a benevolent plantation owner, kind to his servants, but still a slave-holder? What about the relationship between evil Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), his wife (Sarah Paulson) and slave girl Patsey (played magnificently by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o)? Or, most disturbing and heartbreaking for me, certain aspects of the exact moment in which Solomon is freed?