Wince-inducing statement film
The much-heralded “12 Years a Slave” takes the most brutal and dehumanizing acts of the antebellum American South and displays them in an unrelenting fashion, making it both an incredibly uncomfortable and unforgettable movie.
But the question remains: To what end are these events depicted?
Devoid of any meaningful psychological analysis of either the slave owners who perpetuated unspeakable atrocities or of the slaves who were their victims, “12 Years a Slave” serves primarily as a graphic, suffocating sad collection of horrendous images that pummels the audience for over two hours.
For that you can bet there will be many industry accolades–the film is already the frontrunner to take home the best picture Oscar at next month’s Academy Awards. Hollywood, after all, loves to recognize those films it deems IMPORTANT.
For its shock value and the subject material involved, “12 Years” is groundbreaking and worthy of discussion. But shouldn’t there be more to the “hard truth” than simply being hard to watch?
Director Steve McQueen is known for his art-house films that often portray the myriad indignities a human body can suffer, and it appears he’s culled from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir all the lynchings, beatings, rapings, and other abominations and made a well-crafted, superbly-acted horror show.
Northrup is portrayed nobly and sensitively by terrific British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, (Outstanding in “Dirty Pretty Things”) and the screenplay written by John Ridley describes how the New York-born “free negro” was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery to work on the plantations of Louisiana. Forced to take another name and not reveal his true identity or details about his wife and family, Northrup works for several plantation owners, including a malevolent sadist (Michael Fassbender) and another who is less cruel (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northrup decides to (mostly) cooperate, incredulously witnessing that this is by no means a guarantee of mercy.
No doubt “12 Years a Slave” will provoke comparison to films like “Schindler’s List” that have attempted to make a visceral statement about evil men perpetrating vile acts against other men. But while Spielberg weaved a complex story with layered emotional complexity around his occasionally graphic imagery, McQueen’s film appears obsessed with the gruesomeness of the act itself. Many scenes go on so long that the initial shock wears off and the viewer’s attention is distracted from the grotesque nature of the scene itself to the unbridled determination of the filmmakers to make a statement.
Indeed, “12 Years a Slave” is an unsettling film to watch. Sometimes challenging, even shocking material can have profound merit in the realm of artistic endeavor. Examining an important topic like slavery, an adaptation of Northrup’s memoir could have had remarkable educational, even inspirational value.
But “12 Years a Slave” is generally more concerned with making its audience wince than with forging an indelible imprint on the soul.
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and sexuality.