AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | November 4, 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on Twelve Years a Slave)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dwight Henry, Dickie Gravois, Bryan Batt, Ashley Dyke, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler, Tony Bentley, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Christopher Berry, Bill Camp, Mister Mackey Jr., Chris Chalk, Craig Tate, Adepero Oduye, Storm Reid, Tom Proctor, Vivian Fleming-Alvarez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Douglas M. Griffin, John McConnell, Marcus Lyle Brown, Richard Holden, Rob Steinberg, Paul Giamatti, Anwan Glover, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Nicole Collins, J.D. Evermore, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Dylan, Deneen Tyler, Mustafa Harris, Gregory Bright, Austin Purnell, Scott M. Jefferson, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt
Adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave tells the utterly tragic story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man from Saratoga Springs, New York who was abducted into slavery during a trip to Washington D.C. in 1841. A highly regarded fiddle player, Northup is tricked into traveling to Washington as a featured performer. After a night of drinking, Northup is — quite literally — sold down the river by a slave trader (Christopher Berry). Northup ends up in Louisiana where his life is the polar opposite of the free and affluent existence he enjoyed in New York.
Northup immediately learns that any protesting will only result in more pain and torment; he is told time and time again to never attempt to make a claim about his net worth, social standing or intellectual prowess. Life as a slave means being stripped of one’s mind and soul. Transformed into mere shells of human beings, a slave’s power of reason is eradicated, as they must learn to be content in living a thoughtless existence. Northup’s personal history is stripped from him — even his name is changed to Platt, to completely sever his commodified existence from his past life as a free man.
Life as a slave is intended to be hopeless. Slaves are not supposed to anticipate any other possible future than one of serving a master. Northup, however, is different. As the title of the memoir and film informs us, Northup’s life as a slave does come to an end, and he lives to tell the tale; but that is essentially the problem with all bio-pics, an educated audience will always know how the narrative is going to end. 12 Years a Slave is a devastatingly harrowing tale about losing everything except for the will to regain freedom. Northup must make sacrifices — no matter how shameful — in order to survive, specifically in acquiescing to his masters, each of which represent a varying degree of evilness.
As with and Hunger and Shame, McQueen allows the scenes of 12 Years a Slave to play out in a series of methodically extended takes in order to maximize the audience’s emotional discomfort. Each chapter of Northup’s life in slavery unravels with an eerie visual poeticism, allowing the audience to wallow in the mire of the most horrendous moments of Northup’s life without the distraction of editing or fancy camera movements. However, by structuring the narrative in an episodic series of vignettes, the overall timeline seems to progress forward all too quickly. We never get a feeling for just how long Northup spends in any one location under each master.
In his triad of films about human pain and suffering, McQueen observes the relationships between punishment and dehumanization. These films are not intended to be enjoyable entertainment pieces; McQueen’s intent is clearly to affect the audience, to make the viewer think and feel. These films truly are fully immersed, psychological studies of crumbling human fortitude. Then, for American viewers, 12 Years a Slave packs a crushing wallop of historical guilt as McQueen’s outsider perspective invites us to learn from our nation’s past mistakes and inform our future with those lessons.