A few weeks ago, a wife and her mother were set ablaze in a parked car half a mile from my parent’s home, a rural wooded area that has had nearly zero reported crimes in the last decade. I stood shocked for the whole of ten minutes before tossing it into the ever-growing pile of rotten things that happen, a garbage dump of bad news I started when I had to be 10 years old. I’d catch infomercials for the gaunt starving children in Africa, or hear parents whispering of fatal car crashes, drowned babies in bath tubs, or blood letting firefights in bad neighborhoods. To cope, I created a mental garbage shoot to expel rancid information so these heinous cases could decompose somewhere other than my present, active self. Hearing about horrible things becomes expected, and worse, normal. Atrocities become comfortable the longer they sit with us, and news of bombings and tremendous death tolls become an irksome poke to our principles, rather than an inciting fist slamming outrage. Art and cinema exploit this by using our universal nonchalance against us, confronting viewers with society’s bloody laundry. In 1993, Steven Spielberg released his opus Schindler’s List, testifying to the depravity of Nazism as definitively as any film likely ever will. In 2013, British filmmaker Steve McQueen assembled a star laden production, with Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Hans Zimmer, and star Chiwetel Ejiofor, to attack slavery with the same unflinching veracity Steven Spielberg brought to Schindler’s List twenty years ago. 12 Years a Slave is a gutting experience, making the actuality of slavery in America so palpable, that by the film’s end I was laid bear in the cineplex, exhausted and despondent at a history that has never felt so real.
12 Years a Slave finds McQueen at an artistic high, and a clear mastering of the style he experimented with in Hunger and Shame. Both films featured too many unnecessary long takes, self-indulgently spinning meaning into moments without any. His flamboyant style ultimately undermined his goals, but not enough to stop either film from becoming the dramatically potent works that they are. In 12 Years, he welcomes more conventional (or commercial) aesthetics, but when accompanied by the many perfectly timed stylistic flourishes, they mix into an arresting cocktail. Shots that begin as abstractions of shapes and light refocus to reveal plantation woodland, and plainly lit medium shots are sometimes cut with expressive images of ultra-close ups, beautifully balancing artistic flair with orthodox film language. The cinematography is often this lyrical, and oppresses characters into their environments, whether those are slave auction houses or a farm yard. Some way into the film, there’s a shot epitomizing this idea, where the slaves are in crystal clear focus in the mid-ground, but both the overseer cavalry in the background and cotton plants in the foreground are out of focus. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit lights the film’s meticulous compositions with dignified control, and an oscar nomination is a certainty.
Speaking of oscars, the cast is destined for at least one golden statue between them, and three leads in particular would be deserving. Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a villain of many shades of black, showing him as a multiplicity of evil instead of typical searching for a lost humanity. Ejiofor’s lead performance as Solomon Northup demands playing contradictions simultaneously, restraining his soul and body from despair while showing the festering spirit of his heart. It’s a devastating performance, and it’s easy to see him walking away with best actor come 2014. These powerhouse performances know when to linger on high-emotion and when to pull away, something McQueen replicates masterfully in his filmmaking. Beatings, hangings, and other forms of physical assault never become an over dramatized focal point, instead prudently spacing them across the running time when appropriate and necessary. This allows us to exponentially empathize with Solomon on his trek through slave country, and our built up investment in the narrative pays off cruelly in a whipping sequence captured a single take that left the theater in tears. Composer Hans Zimmer gives significant bite to these depictions, ratcheting up tension with industrial and abrasive sounds that veer towards experimental. The score would compliment the film perfectly if not for the utterly distracting similarity to Inception's emotional cues, which play under many of this film's most moving scenes.
McQueen discovered an unspeakable power in the story of Solomon Northup, and his stroke of genius inspiration to adapt this story in this way has resulted in the ultimate cinematic depiction of American Slavery, justly due for reverence and adoration in the coming channels of film history.