Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

14 November 2013

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's latest is just as smart as his last two films, although 12 Years a Slave is very different from both Hunger and Shame.

Mr. Ejiofor
Some great things right off of the bat. The acting is superb. McQueen has cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead Solomon Northup, and the film also boasts not only usual McQueen-muse Michael Fassbender but also superb supporting performances from Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Alfre Woodard, and Sarah Paulson. And that's before we talk about the much smaller roles that are beautifully performed by excellent actors (Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Dwight Henry, Quvenzhané Wallis, Michael K. Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Dano).

The acting is unbelievable. Expect at least three acting nominations come Oscar morning. Four actually seems more likely.

Ms. Nyong'o and Ms. Woodard
The film is also really smart about the complicity of everyone in the South with slavery. There are no nice white women in this film feeling bad about themselves while their husbands torture and abuse the people they've enslaved. No way. 12 Years a Slave has no time for such narratives. And this means that at times McQueen's film is unbearably violent. Now, I thought that Tarantino's latest was also smart about violence, but McQueen makes the violence in his film ubiquitous and almost banal. Unlike in Django, in 12 Years the violence is never on show. We are not there to watch violence: we are there to watch how it affects people, how it damages lives, how it is used to maintain a criminal system. When I say it is banal, too, I mean that it is a part of what enslaved men and women dealt with on a daily basis. 12 Years makes this point again and again. The film's characters' lives and safety are always under threat. Always. This is life under terror. There is never a moment of peace.

The film also takes its time. It moves poetically in ways similar to McQueen's previous films (although this is less pronounced in 12 Years). More than once the camera lingers on Ejiofor's face for longer than it is comfortable for the audience, and once he looks directly at the audience. These shots are haunting and beautiful. After one of the men dies in the field, his family and friends stand beside the grave and the camera simply stares at Topsy Chapman and waits for her to do something. She eventually starts singing, and the pause before her song is almost as heartbreaking as the song itself.

I had one qualm about 12 Years. There is a way that the film allows us to believe that Solomon Northup doesn't really belong in the South, isn't really a slave, that he deserves to be free because he is actually a freeman from the North. Now, all of this is true. He is a freeman from a Northern state. But none of the people enslaved in Louisiana ought to have been there. Every single one of those people would have been free if justice existed anywhere near those plantations. With the ending of 12 Years (which is a little bit like the ending to The Color Purple), the film allows us to celebrate Solomon's escape to freedom, the justice that he finally received thanks to USAmerican law. After I saw the film with my friend Leah, I told her that what I wanted from McQueen was one last shot of the plantation after Solomon's escape: one final reminder that if the USAmerican justice system finally allowed Solomon his freedom, that same legal system continued to enforce the enslavement, torture, and death of unnumbered others whose names and histories are lost to us.

This qualm is no small criticism, but it is, in truth, only a gripe. 12 Years a Slave is an excellent film by a filmmaker at the height of his abilities. It's poetic, it's powerful, and it's extraordinarily smart. This is must-see stuff.