12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director:  Steve McQueen
Cast:  Chiwetel EjioforMichael K. WilliamsMichael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong'o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti 
Plot:  In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / History
Awards:  Won 3 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.  Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design.
Runtime:  134min
Rating:  M18 for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.

“I don't want to survive. I want to live.”

A lock in the Best Picture category, 12 Years a Slave will probably go on to garner half a dozen more major Oscar nominations.  It is director Steve McQueen's most important work to date for two reasons: its obvious historical significance, and its essentialism as a key contemporary work of black cinema. 

We had Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) earlier this year, an inspirational true story about a black boy who survived slavery who grew up to be the longest-serving butler in the White House.  It is a decent film, and in many ways similar and different, but ultimately incomparable to McQueen's hard-hitting and uncompromising picture of a free black man who left his family behind after being kidnapped and sold to slavery in the South, and yes, enduring twelve long years of unimaginable hardship.

It is also a true story, quite well adapted from the book originally written by Solomon Northup, the subject of McQueen's film as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives an astonishing performance worthy of an Oscar win.  The ensemble cast including big names such as Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt deliver the goods, in particular Fassbender and a little known actress called Lupita Nyong’o, both of whom might snatch supporting acting nods. 

Brutally violent when it needs to be, 12 Years a Slave doesn't sensationalize or sexualize racial aggression for McQueen's sober direction allows a historical truth to take form, even if its objectivity is imbued with an empathy for the oppressed.  There are scenes of torture, including one that sees Solomon being forced to whip a naked black woman to near death.  These scenes are hard to stomach, but any milder and they lose their historical truth. 

Not as engaging as the director's first two features Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). 12 Years a Slave can be draggy at times, though I don't mean it in an entirely negative way, but rather more like a Malickian sense.  The pacing is deliberate, but there is no loss of narrative and character focus.  Solomon is our eyes and ears in one of the darkest periods of American history. 

For some critics, this is McQueen's most mature work to date.  I sort of agree, and I must say that the celebrated British director has been one of the most consistent filmmakers in the world of the last five years.  12 Years a Slave does not sentimentalize, nor does it function too didactically as a history lesson.  It is simply essential viewing.

Verdict:  Not McQueen’s most engaging effort in my opinion, but certainly his most important work to date.


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