12 Years a Slave (2013): As Close to Reality as Narrative Can Get

One of the essential aspects that a director needs to have in order to not only create a well-crafted and emotionally rocking film, but also have enough humanity remaining in its presentation to enable a sustained connection with its audience. Steve McQueen is considered to be one of the great provocateurs of the day (up next to Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke).

Now, any filmmaker can make (what some may call) an exploitive piece about the atrocities committed during American slavery, as well as the act of kidnapping free black citizens and selling them into slavery. And considering this past year we had a large release of two hyper-charged movies dealing with the topic of slavery (Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained), however, neither had really the face of slavery painted with such a stark and unflinching brush.

McQueen takes the true story of abolitionist Solomon Northup’s 12 years in bondage and presents a cinematic experience that can only be equaled in visceral honesty by his previous films and one other. The attention to minute details was some of the most impressive filmmaking I have seen in dealing with a dark and grizzly subject. However, it also has a ring of such realism that when dealing with this particular period in time in cinema, one of the more popular methods is the film around the Civil War with slavery playing a part in the background, toying about. In Ronald Maxwell’s Civil War epics (Gettysburg, Copperhead and Gods and Generals) slaves were treated with kid gloves, taking a more particular (and appropriate) focus on the battles and the lives lost. Lincoln was completely about the subject of slavery and it was at the utmost importance, but it was from the legislative and political points of view, about those responsible at the end for the eradication of slavery. And ironically, the one film dealing with slavery during the conflict that even came close to this point of showcasing the horrors of slavery was Edward Zwick’s Glory, only due to the fact that the subject was the foundation of the first Negro regiment in the United States army.

So, we arrive in pre-Civil War America where a happy family is shattered by a violinist’s commission for work and being drugged and taken. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who personally is one of the most overlooked actors working in filmmaking today, plays Solomon. Having an eclectic filmography from Amistad and Talk to Me to Serenity, this man is one of the more impressive character actors of the last twenty years, and is a perfect casting choice for the main role. The whole of the cast is perfectly pieced together. With supporting cast members Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano and Adepero Oduye, this is one of the most impressively assembled pieces next to There Will be Blood and The Social Network. However, there is of course one other shining star next to Ejiofor, and that is Michael Fassbender.

Fassbender throws so much passion and rage into the role of Edwin Epps that he as the actor disappears. This is a performance that happens possibly once in an actor’s career as being that quintessential movie that epitomizes your craft at its peak of power. Though Fassbender has been delivering this type of acting in the past (notably with McQueen and Neil Marshall), but never to this level. As his energy courses through the part, it infects everyone else. The emotion is so raw and revealing that it is quite difficult not to be effected deeply by the film. For it is not the harsh imagery and brutal realism of how slavery is documented alone, but for the undiluted emotion coursing from the characters gives the pain a human face.

Unlike horror films where many people are there to simply be meat, or even more directly in Tarantino’s Django where the film takes the pain of bondage and does illuminate on several atrocities perpetrated in that time, it was more of an homage to Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation films than a commentary on slavery, so in many instances it was very tongue-in-cheek about it.

12 Years a Slave is a film that makes audiences care for each and every one in this hell-on-screen. And the antagonists are a commentary on themselves, as conversations dealing with the topics of slavery and right to property when that property is a human being. To avoid sounding utterly repetitive, it must be expressed that when presenting a topic so close to so many people as well as the foundations of many families, one thing must be understood more than any other. Though a director or writer may have every last shred of empathy on the planet, unless the research has been done fully and down to the most scrupulous detail, it will not be effective. One of the recent issues with a film was the release of the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. And though it was a beautifully sad movie, the material dealing with the effect of Nazism and Hitler Youth on the main character (one of the central focuses of the original story) was held at a considerable distance. And though the cast did a remarkable job and the writing was near identical to the book at times, the respect for the material ended up neutering the result, without much in the way of tension or honesty of how the world appeared and existed during that time.

This film though, takes the full blood and brutality of American slavery as well as reminds each audience member that these were people. Not actors faking on a screen, not a story that just told a time hundreds of years ago, but this was the reality, the present for so many people. Without a doubt, this is a movie that is one of the strongest representations of the subject, as well as one of the best movies made in 2013.

FINAL RATING:  ★★★★½ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Originally Published: January 6, 2014 in The Baltimore Examiner