Film: ’12 Years a Slave’ Is Cinema at Its Most Essential

By Will Ashton || @thewillofash
12 Years a Slave
| Directed by Steve McQueen | Rated R

12-Years-a-Slave-posterThere is great cinema that you enjoy and then there is great cinema that you process.

12 Years a Slave, the third film from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, is very much the later. While far from enjoyable entertainment, 12 Years a Slave is a powerful, relentless look at one of America’s darkest chapters. It’s not just one of the year’s best films, but it is also one of the most important films made in the past decade.

Based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup, the film tells a free black man who, when drugged and held captive, journeys through the horrors of slavery.

Much like last year’s Amour, 12 Years a Slave is not an enjoyable film to watch, but it is, nonetheless, a beautifully made and captivating film. What ultimately makes the film work so well is its ability to unflinchingly look at slavery. More than anything else, McQueen studies not just what becomes of the plight of one race, but rather how we measure humanity.

Constantly, 12 Years a Slave studies slavery in relation to religion and how we justify terrible actions, but the film is able to fit these themes and messages in the film without it getting preachy or bringing the focus away from the plot.

What really makes the film work is Steve McQueen. His fearless direction and his commitment to showing the horrors of slavery in its true and relentless form transforms audience into its timeline with relentless force and captivates them from beginning to end.

By refusing to look away, McQueen is able to fully transcend the despicable nature of humanity’s ugliness in full force. 12 Years a Slave is not a hateful film, however, but a cautionary one. By showing such ugliness, even through the beautiful cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, McQueen gives a fully fleshed out and in depth look at what becomes of human decency when we refuse to look at human worth. It reminds us not just of how far we have come, but how we should strive to continue progressing forward in human rights.

In many ways, 12 Years a Slave is the anti-Django Unchained. Well, sort of. While both are exceptional in what they are trying to accomplish, 12 Years a Slave’s relentless, realistic look at slavery plays a strong contrast to the cartoonish nature of Tarantino’s film. While Quentin’s film certainly opened the door for the conversation, it is McQueen’s film that truly looks into the madness of slavery and how, as a nation, we deprived humanity so bluntly. It is a dark, unrelenting film in every way it should be.

In addition to McQueen and Bobbitt’s visions, this depiction is slavery is accomplished so truthfully through the performances from its cast. In particularly, Chiwetel Ejiofor subtle, quiet performance in the lead role is haunting in its simplicity and its pain. There is true fear and terror in his eyes, and this sense of denigration adds extra layers of sympathy to McQueen’s film.

Additionally, as always, Michael Fassbender is powerfully evil as Edwin Epps, Northup’s slave owner. His dedicated, deranged performance opens the film to questions about the nature of slavery in religion’s eyes, and provides a human interpretation to the nastiness that plagues this film. Supporting roles from Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Lupita Nyong’o also stand out.

12 Years a Slave is essential cinema. It’s a film that demands to be seen not just as a reminder of what we have done as a country, but as a look at humanity in its darkest, most deprived form. 12 Years a Slave is certainly not the first film to ever do this, but it’s ability to look at slavery squarely and firm right in its ugly face allows for it to become a haunting and unforgettable cinematic experience.

It’s a movie that demands to be seen, if—among all else—to look at how far we have come and also to remind us that perhaps we haven’t gone as far as we would hope.

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