Three films into his already influential career, it's clear that British director Steve McQueen is deeply concerned with power. In both Hunger (his extraordinary debut detailing the final days of incarcerated IRA activist Bobby Sands) and Shame (his uneven study of a sex-addicted New Yorker), McQueen explored the ways in which we, when stripped of freedom, adapt or collapse. In his view Sands, though locked away in a stinking prison, retained a graceful passion which would come to define his cause. By contrast, Hunger's protagonist remains hopelessly enslaved to his sex addiction, though ostensibly "free" to choose his own fate.
Perhaps, then, it was an obvious choice for McQueen to turn to tackling this metaphor head-on. In 12 Years A Slave, a grueling, harrowing study of the peculiar institution that defined the southern U.S. economy prior to the Civil War, McQueen follows one man's journey from freedom to slavery to deliverance. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, NY, who was kidnapped and then sold to slavers in Washington in the early 1840s, McQueen's film takes the audience deep into the horror and calamity of chattel slavery. Between long, punishing shots of brutal whippings, lynchings, hangings, and rape, and the pervasive repugnance of the situation more generally, McQueen has mounted the most affecting film about American slavery that has ever been made.
But, does that in and of itself recommend it?
Some will, surely, say: yes. And any smart money will be on this film enjoying a historic run during awards season. But, despite the undeniable power of the picture, some excesses remain frustrating. Though boasting riveting, muscular performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role (an Oscar shoo-in and deservedly so) and a ferocious Michael Fassbender as a callous slaver, the film is marred by distracting cameos, people whose too-famous faces pull us out of the film so completely we can find it difficult to return. Equally distracting is a pushy, overbearing score from Hans Zimmer.
Moreover, for many viewers (myself included) there will be instances when what is happening onscreen is simply too gruesome to watch. While one must respect McQueen (and screenwriter John Ridley) for refusing to slip into sentimentalism, for aiming to reveal the depth of the brutality that characterized this institution, at times the film pushes past affecting demonstration into punishing, numbing savagery. Some will see this as necessary. I am unconvinced.
And yet, these are perhaps minor grievances when weighed against the overall success of 12 Years A Slave, certainly the most important film I have seen this year.
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