12 Years a Slave is the newest film from director Steve McQueen, and with Oscar season in full swing it is getting a lot of press as a likely movie not only to be nominated for Best Picture, but to possibly win the category. Before watching the movie I regarded the reasons for this cynically: sure it's probably a great film, but it's an easy pick for Best Picture because of white guilt and all that. Now that I watched it, I couldn't be more embarrassed by my cynicism. 12 Years a Slave is the most emotionally moving film I've seen this year, it's filmed and acted beautifully by its cast and crew, and it confronts the issues of racism and slavery with sensitivity and compassion. It just might be the best movie of the year. That said, I think there are perfectly justifiable reasons not to like this movie, so let's first take a look at what it is not as a backdoor into talking about what makes it so great.
12 Years a Slave is not escapist. I almost want to say it's not fun, but that would ignore the touching drama and stunning cinematography which both entail their own form of enjoyment. My point is rather than this movie is absolutely brutal both visually and emotionally, and if you go to the cinema for gun battles, fart jokes, or happy-ending romances you'll probably find yourself wanting to leave. It is not like Quentin Tarantino, where graphic violence is amplified to the point of caricature, but on the other hand it is also not like Lars von Trier, where the camera gets too close and all you want to do is look away. There is a heart and an artistry at the center of its brutality, and the violence always serves a purpose beyond mere shock value.
Even with its brutality, 12 Years a Slave is not preachy or condescending. The easiest thing to do with a movie like this is talk down to your audience or oversimplify your message. As much as the movie is about slavery, more than that it is about Solomon Northup, a man who went through hell and survived. As much as the movie is about racism, more than that it is about humans and the ways they mistreat each other. It deals with its subject matter gracefully and as part of a larger effort to tell a story. It is not your parents telling you about mistakes they made in order to make you a better person, it is your friends telling you about pain they felt in order to share their experience with you.
Important is a difficult word. Saying a movie is important almost seems to imply judgment towards people who don't want to see it, and of all the things 12 Years a Slave is not, perhaps the most crucial is that it's not judgmental. I want to say it's important, but in doing so I feel like I'm missing part of the point of the film. I feel like I'm saying you ought to see it when really what I want is simply to share it with you. So in an effort to do just that, here are some things I loved about 12 Years a Slave.
The most interesting thing about this movie for me was its relationship to cinematic history. This perhaps more than anything else is the reason I think it will be remembered. Consider its position with regard to Gone with the Wind. Both are biographical, historical epics which take place in the mid-1800's and follow the emotional struggles of a character who is affected by overarching cultural events but remains only a tangential influence upon them. They both follow characters who are subjects of history rather than figures who changed it. The difference in perspective brings to light the tragic irony of calling Scarlett O'Hara a victim.
There's a scene in The Birth of a Nation which is often played for film students. It depicts Flora Cameron playing peacefully in the woods, being propositioned by the "renegade negro" Gus, and being chased through the forest and over the edge of a cliff to her death. It is shown as an example of early crosscutting used to build tension, but also is a classic example of racism both in the use of blackface and in its demonization of black people as lusty, heartless brutes. This scene is played in reverse in 12 Years a Slave. Northup is sent into town on an errand, decides to try to run away through the forest, is intercepted by a gang of bounty hunters, and returns to his errand. Whereas the first shows white people as naturally peaceful until disturbed by the troublesome black folk, the second shows the constant fear of the life of a slave and the way he was forced to hide.
Gravity has gotten a lot of praise this year for its beautiful long shots, and rightfully so, but I've seen relatively little regarding similar elements in 12 Years a Slave's cinematography. The shots are all on the longer side by today's standards, but there's one scene in the middle of the film which is absolutely stunning. Without giving too much away, it begins with a single conflict over a small object which gradually escalates out of control until you've forgotten what started the mess, at which point the final camera movement is a pan down returning to the object. Having this scene as a single take foregrounds how quickly the events escalated and traps the audience in the action. It aligns you with Northup in his fear and disgust on the one hand and his inability to look away on the other. It forces you to feel the scene rather than simply see it.
Speaking of 12 Years a Slave's visceral nature, the first thing that struck me as the movie began was the soundtrack. The opening scene plays the central musical theme which is emotionally packed from the beginning and becomes more crowded with emotion each time it resurfaces. Soon after, however, there's a powerful and almost exciting song which takes on an increasingly ominous character as it progresses. The composer for the film is the amazing Hans Zimmer, known more recently for his soundtracks to many of Christopher Nolan's movies but who's been working since the 80's on classic films like Rain Man and The Lion King. Here he pulls out all the stops, making for a commanding and versatile soundtrack.
It's been said a million times, but I'll say it again: the acting and characters are phenomenal. Chiwetel Ejiofer plays the protagonist Solomon Northup, a man who experiences a range of emotion from strength and pride to misery and despair. He attempts to remain stoic for much of the movie, and his unspoken melancholy comes out in the music, another testament to the skill of both actor and composer. Michael Fassbender plays a convincingly menacing antagonist and manages to keep his racist anger on a human level, showing his weakness and emasculation. A character like this takes immense talent to be as evil as he is without lapsing into caricature. The only questionable casting decision I could see was Brad Pitt, who performs well for what it's worth but sticks out like a sore thumb.
Well, I guess that's about it. The only possible complaint I could see being made about this movie is that it's exploitative, and even then I think that misses the point. While this is undeniably a movie about slavery, the central message isn't "slavery was bad, look at how bad slavery was." More than being about the atrocities of the past, this is a movie about a man who lived his life against overwhelming odds.