Sean K. Cureton

Slavery in the American South, as an Eerily Realistic and Surreal Nightmare

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on November 24, 2013 at 6:41 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
4 out of 4 stars

Based on the historical slave narrative written by Solomon Nothup in the mid-nineteenth century, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave tells the story of the American South in the midst of its most debauched era. Where other films about slavery in the American South have always felt overly clinical and too ostentatiously self-effacing, McQueen’s examination of the same subject feels eerily realistic to the point of surrealistic nightmare. The lurid objectivity with which McQueen examines Solomon’s initial kidnapping and subsequent enslavement is fascinating in its accuracy, and horrifying in its accusatory representations. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is at the top of his game as Solomon, delivering a career defining performance that is supremely effective in its subtleties; wounded, defeated, searching, and hopeful, all at the same time. Never has a film represented the experience of the American slave this truthfully without sacrificing honesty for showmanship; luckily for the viewer, McQueen is modest in his presence as spectator, allowing the performances from his characters to speak for him, delivering a cinematic story that is worthy of the man that inspired it.

Starting with the opening sequence of the film, McQueen takes the viewer directly into the mind of his protagonist, wrongfully imprisoned and slowly losing the will to live. McQueen’s Solomon is, in this way, heartfelt and tenderly wrought as a cinematic figure, able to stand in for the numerously varied experiences of those around him. Ejiofor as Solomon is forceful in his striving towards life, intelligent in his deceptively hidden depths of humanity, and tender in his state as the downtrodden man. When watching Ejiofor’s performance on screen, it’s hard to believe that any one man could manipulate his own emotional condition so drastically at will, hinting at the true and horrible nature of slavery as an act of aggressive and violent coercion. When the lashes of the master’s whip cracks towards the end of the film, Eijiofor’s horror is palpable, merging with the psychological state of the viewer, and granting the film the illusion of reality that all films attempt to capture, but so rarely do.

Beyond the masterful performance from lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and not to mention the equally stunning turns from supporting actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, Steve McQueen as director makes his own presence felt definitively as author of this great modern masterpiece. Shot for shot, and sequence for sequence, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an intense portrait of the endurance of the human soul, magnificently captured through extended shots of such interminable length that might make the likes of Stanley Kubrick jealous. Instead of moving from location to location with the rapidity of someone afraid of the wretched nature of his subject, McQueen lingers over each scene and landscape, rendering the duration of the twelve years of the title viscerally realized through the cinematic image. Whether it’s a shot of ten’s of workers in a cotton field, or one single gaze into the face and soul of Solomon, McQueen’s camera doesn’t miss one moment offered up by his actors and locations. In this way McQueen essentially documents every piece of cinematic artifice as if it was fact, and deceives the viewer into accepting such a fanciful philosophy in the process.

In what is only his third feature film, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave may very well be not only the greatest film from a singular director, but the greatest film about slavery in the American South ever made. Taking its place beside such important slave narrative films as Roots, McQueen’s film about the life of the wrongfully enslaved Solomon Northup is masterfully conceived, acting as a vehicle for historical discussion and interpretation, as opposed to the type of advantageous mythologizing that is more typical from such cinematic adaptations. Led by a stellar cast of leading actors, McQueen’s film is powerfully interpreted, leaving nothing unarticulated or left to the imagination of the viewers. Through its brutal honesty, 12 Years a Slave serves as an unflinching reminder of an American past rooted in prejudicial amorality, and reminds us of how far we’ve come since, and how much father we have yet to go. Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor have made the most important film of the year, and now it’s up to the viewer to see and champion their picture as the masterwork that it is.

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