Directors who strive to project the most impactful films on cinema screens face a quandary. While film is arguably one of the most powerful art forms — which compels its use as a medium for critical stories — film remains, first and foremost, entertainment. Few directors possess the tact needed to engage audiences while telling alarming stories, but Steve McQueen, who recently directed the disquieting 12 Years a Slave, proved himself again, in his unity of impact and engagement, as one of the preeminent directors in the industry.
12 Years a Slave follows the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who enjoyed a prosperous life in Saratoga, NY in the 1840s. Unburdened by the specter of Southern slavery, the unsuspecting Northup is soon baited by two con artists, drugged and kidnapped, and awakened to find himself sold into slavery. Stripped of his freedom, name, family — and even his ability to disclose his education — Northup fights to maintain his own will for freedom and humanity as he sweats and bleeds into the Louisiana soil for the next 12 years.
The best descriptor for McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a word that is overprescribed to films that are nothing like its definition: unflinching. As a film about slavery should be, 12 Years a Slave is hard to watch. After an altercation with the disturbed slave driver Tibeats (a great Paul Dano), Northup is wrangled into a noose, only saved from Tibeats when his associate scares off the hangman. But while waiting for a final discipline from plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup swings in the noose, saving his neck only through his ability to squish the mud below with the tips of his toes as he chokes on air. Behind him, slaves continue to work and children play, resigned to the horrors of their realities. The scene is excruciating — Solomon’s swinging and squishing lasts for more than a minute of uncut footage. Much of the film mirrors this same agony in scenes of whipped flesh, random violence and child rape.
The amnesic prejudice that persists in the modern world proves the necessity of McQueen’s painful 12 Years a Slave to remind that racism is a not-so-ancient history. Yet, 12 Years a Slave offers more than a moral compass to keep audiences in their seats. The silent necessity of 12 Years a Slave lies in its gorgeous cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. Within the confines of the naturalism necessary to tell the true story, Bobbitt frames every composition of characters like a Renaissance painting. To transition between periods of Solomon’s interminable 12 years, Bobbitt capitalizes on the haunting beauty of Louisiana in long camera movements through the graceful and bald cypress trees and across billowing cotton fields. Not only does Bobbitt’s camera work provide instantaneous beauty to viewers, but it also juxtaposes this beauty with the ugly times, giving hope to Northup and his supporters on the other side of the screen.
But what most distinguishes 12 Years a Slave as film, rather than an unforgiving history lesson, is the performances. Granted, the most powerful performance emanates from Michael Fassbender, whose portrayal of slave owner Edwin Epps is equally as terrifying in his moments of venomous rage and unnatural silence. But 12 Years a Slave supplements this alarm with bewitching displays of hope and fortitude in such hopeless times. Powerhouse actor Benedict Cumberbatch visibly writhes in the struggle to be a moral man in a slave economy — a victim of his time and indication of the emancipated future. Most importantly, Chiwetel Ejiofor, in physical action and dialogue, expertly charts Northup trajectory through shock, struggle, despair and ultimately deliverance.
And perhaps McQueen’s unflinchingly 12 Years a Slave triumphs because it leads audiences to travel that same trajectory — shock, struggle, despair and deliverance — and proves that the film fulfills its true capacity while both challenging and entertaining.