Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” Review and Trailer

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five-stars

Director Steve McQueen‘s tertiary film “12 Years a Slave” is a serious accomplishment. Coming from making such films as “Shame” and “Hunger”, McQueen has already established himself as a craftsmen of difficult psychological portraits. “12 Years” is no exception, and is an exemplary bout of filmmaking in its own right.

The plot of the film is based on an actual memoir by a freeman turned slave turned freeman, Solomon Northup, a musician and carpenter from New York. Through his journey, we are led through a society built on the foundations of the dehumanizing process of institutionalized slavery, and great focus is put on the dehumanization itself. We are shown how the process occurs by the masters – how they can justify to themselves this travesty, for instance – and we are shown how they behave amongst themselves from the perspective of living in this society. Their subconscious reactions to this status quo vary from humble aristocracy to outright sadism. Unfortunately for our main character, this sadism is the primary result of a society built on outright violence as that of Southern Feudalism was. And the society is very much so a character in this film, painted with such colors as to make it almost touchable, as we see the poor protagonist dragged through it.

Thus the primary focus of the film is to portray the psychological disintegration of proud Mr. Northup, (an incredible portrayal from actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), from well-to-do and respected man-about-town with a burgeoning family, to broken and survivalist slave, amidst this broken and cruel society.

The method in which this is portrayed, though, is not in a gritty realistic manner; although there is grit, to be sure. The film, rather, progresses much like a bad dream. We see the casually hanging Spanish moss, the lakes and ponds of the Bayou; the trees, the wildlife, the cotton. We see these things passing time like associations, casually carrying us from one atrocious memory to the next. Aesthetically, there are many moments of great beauty in the awful kind, serving as not just a juxtaposition to the horrors witnessed, but to create a complete mental landscape of this mountainous spate of memories which, one can only tell, would prefer to be forgotten.

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Stylistically, the shots are allowed to breathe, and one can tell that Mr. McQueen would much prefer to allow a shot to carry a scene than haphazard editing, a factor that keeps him close to my heart. There are many scenes which stand out as all the more poignant because of the manner in which they were shot – one, in which Solomon is hanging from a tree and we watch as the farm recommences its ordinary life in spite of this. In this shot, we are forced to sit there and simply watch, as physically helpless to his condition as the other slaves doing their mundane chores around him are mentally. Another shot is a climactic shot of whipping (more than that I will not say) – this was done in all one long take, punctuated by various points, and as such was infinitely more powerful than if it was chopped up like a bit of woodchips. All this was punctuated further by the fine score by Hans Zimmer.

Topically, the film is an important reminder in the topic of American nationalism, and of nationalism in general. Those who may say that they are “proud to be an _________”, what is there to be proud of? Pride is a very strange emotion to arise from reviewing one’s past, in that one had nothing to do with it except descend from it. Allow me to point out that this statement does not apply only to American nationalism – every country has blood and atrocity on their hands. However, the topic of slavery (not to mention the Native American genocide) is one which should live in the average American’s mind with as much weight as that of the Third Reich should live in the average German’s. This isn’t to say that one should be ashamed of what their forefathers did, as this is equally ridiculous as pride by the same logic. Rather, one must realize what occurred and be realistic about it – one must understand that the consequences of the past still exist today. That is to say that American society is still shaped by its legacy of slavery, a legacy which is too often romanticized or demonized.

And, in this regard, never before have I seen such a tasteful, honest, lucid, and uncompromising depiction of slavery’s dehumanizing effect on the individual and society. Perhaps it had to come from a British filmmaker, but either way, this is an important film, aesthetically and topically.

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