March 22, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 57°F


Review: Director’s detail captures history

12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen

It is difficult to watch “12 Years a Slave” without thinking of last year’s “Django Unchained.” After all, it is rare to see one film about slavery, let alone two, within a year of each other. But the two couldn’t be more different. While “Django” is immensely entertaining, “12 Years a Slave” is unenjoyable. That is not to say the film isn’t great, but the audience may not like the gruesome content it sees on the screen, though it dare not look away for a second.

The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in an Oscar-worthy performance, a musician born a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. While his wife and children are away, he receives a high-paying job with a circus. After a night out with the two men, he wakes up in chains and is soon sold into slavery. A fellow slave tells him that if he wants to survive, he must do and say as little as possible.

This sets the tone for how Northup conducts himself during his years as a slave. He cooperates with those he respects and is insubordinate to those he doesn’t. This results in numerous brutal beatings, some of which are hard to watch. Director Steve McQueen strategically places the camera low to create the illusion that the whip is actually hitting the body, making the audience feel as if they are watching the real thing. This can at times be overwhelming, particularly when the cruel Master Epps, played with great depth by Michael Fassbender, orders him to whip Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young female slave.

Perhaps it takes a subtle director such as McQueen to paint an unblinking depiction of slavery. He directs both the film’s brighter scenes and its darkest ones in a straightforward, non-dramatic manner. While his style increases the film’s historical accuracy, it detracts from its entertainment value, especially during its bland final scene.

As with his previous films “Hunger” and “Shame,” McQueen is able to comment on an issue by presenting it simply. Anchored by fantastic performances, “12 Years a Slave” may be the simplest and most accurate film about American slavery.