A Decade at the Oscars: 12 Years a Slave
19) Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)
20) Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
21) 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
22) Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)
23) 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)
The first actual winner of the Best Picture Oscar that I have reviewed during this A Decade at the Oscars feature, 12 Years a Slave is a masterwork of grim racism and a portrait of how mistreatment of both an individual and a people can lead to hopelessness and despair. It is a film that, through a harmonious, if brutal, blend of form and content delivers an unrelentingly harrowing cinematic experience, and for this the film and its director McQueen deserve all the plaudits they have received, both in 2013 and, within certain film circles, every year since. It is true that you kind of know what you’re going to get with 12 Years a Slave – it is a historical drama that gives a predictable if stubbornly uncompromising depiction of slavery; it will not subvert your expectations, but rather meet them head on with shocking force – and McQueen puts this across with such intensity, and forces us to reflect on our own conscience and complicity so astutely that, no matter your starting point coming into the film or the angle you perceive it from, it is hard to argue that this is anything but an outstanding 5-star film.
You see, the inescapable fact of 12 Years a Slave is that it is just such a thoroughly important film. It is the best depiction of American slavery, and quite possibly the best depiction of the horrors hidden within the histories of all nations, ever put to screen. It is a foundational work – the sort of film everybody should watch, the sort of film that should be shown in schools to educate on the evils of our past: a truly seminal blend of compelling fiction and appalling truth. The 1853 autobiography written by Solomon Northup of his tenure in unjust captivity is, of course, a large part of this, but the film wouldn’t hold the same power without the combination of the talents of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and director McQueen. British actor Ejiofor has always been an excellent character actor, but before his starring turn as Northup here he tended to play supporting roles in lighter movies. He was Keira Knightley’s groom Peter in Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003), the selfish, villainous Luke in dystopian action movie Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006), and the scientist-come-moral-compass Adrian in popcorn disaster movie 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009). All are films which I love, and all are elevated by Ejiofor’s considerable talents no matter the size of his role, but none compare to the weight of Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave. It is a challenge to which the actor rises with simply incredible aptitude as he delivers an all-time great performance as a man who is at first free and distinguished, then brave and steadfast in the face of a sudden, unexpected loss of freedom, and then increasingly meek and resigned as the 12 years wear him down to the point where he accepts his fate alongside his fellow defeated slaves. It is a shocking journey to witness and one you just could not imagine another actor conveying quite as movingly or astonishingly as Ejiofor.
The actor is nevertheless helped by his director here, as McQueen provides the perfect showcase for Ejiofor’s exceptional performance. One of the greatest sources of the film’s power is through a small number of long takes peppered throughout its runtime in key moments. One in particular shows Northup hanging from a tree, his feet barely able to touch the ground, clinging to life as his fellow slaves go about their business behind him, too afraid of retribution to help him. The force of shots like this is seismic, keeping us in the moment, unable to look away or hide behind the safety of cuts. It feels as if we are there, in the scene, and that we, much like the other slaves, are unwilling or unable to help Northup. We are made to think about what is going on in these shots, consider the behaviour of all involved, and even reflect on our own position. They cause everything to feel so real, and deny the fabrication and suspense of disbelief that editing silently conveys. Much in the way that Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) employed such long takes to show the intensity of fear and hopelessness of Nazi concentration camps, 12 Years a Slave does similar with slavery keeping us in the unendurable moments for far longer than we are comfortable, because, after all, slaves didn’t get the luxury of quickly moving on to the safety of the next shot.
So why, you might ask, if the film is such a masterpiece, does it not break into my top twenty? I could point to very minor flaws such as the imperfect narrative structure: the film jumps back and forward in time fairly randomly and, while this serves as a strong juxtaposition between years of freedom and years of slavery, it is perhaps a facile narrative device. The ending too, though we do get the emotional reunion of the final shot, is rather abrupt and doesn’t provide the satisfying release the audience is hoping for, but I suspect McQueen would argue that this is intentional, and that he had no desire to placate the horrors we have just witnessed with a Hollywood ending. The truth is, I just don’t really want to ever see 12 Years a Slave again. Though it is a film everybody should see once, once is enough for it is a painful experience. Films in my top twenty are for the most part pieces that I have personal affection for – movies that are not only great in terms of craft and message but which touched me in an unexpected, emotional and probably deeply subjective way. Joker and Get Out for example, both have something to say about the world whilst also staying thoroughly entertaining and simultaneously working on multiple layers. Though 12 Years a Slave does manage this to an extent, entertainment almost seems too soft a word for the film. It comes in at just a little over two hours but conveys not just the sheer torture of 12 years of slavery, but the collective pain of centuries of it, and if you have not yet seen it, I implore you to do so. But perhaps only once.
At time of writing, 12 Years a Slave is available to watch on Netflix.