Damn near anyone who appreciates or even so much as likes film knows all about how real and brutal Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I would be ready for such a film, especially from McQueen; the director I saw behind a film like Shame wouldn’t seem to be the same director behind such an accessible film as this one, even in spite of its material and subject matter. Nevertheless, here we are, with 12 Years a Slave, and it is everything people have made it out to be. It is unrelenting, cruel, and at a few choice moments, nearly intolerable. And that is exactly the way it needed to be. Other films may have their choice of how to depict slavery, but this is the sort of film that needed to be made.
For the handful of you who don’t know the story, it recounts the true tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York in the early-to-mid 1800s who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he remains for the next 12 years. Just as I’ve said countless times before, it’s the simplest premises that make for the most complex and multilayered viewing experiences, and 12 Years a Slave is so much more than its premise. What makes 12 Years a Slave as powerful as it is is in its ability to get us to think the exact same thoughts as its characters, protagonists and antagonists alike. When we see characters like Edwin Epps, played with a fierce intensity by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, spout religious doctrine at the slaves in a justification of his treatment of them, along with other scenes like Epps’ argument with Brad Pitt’s character about the nature of slaves versus animals as property versus human beings, and we suddenly realize we understand where Epps is coming from, it creates a reaction in us, one of surprise and maybe even self-loathing, that is exactly the intent with the making of this film. This is to get us to understand our past, and to make sure we never treat another group of human beings the same way we treated slaves, which would seem to be a repugnant notion, but it really wasn’t even a few decades ago, and the message here, overblown and overstated as it may be, is one that amazingly still holds water even today, and who knows the next sub-group we may end up vilifying in a similar way. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either willfully naive or just plain ignorant, and it takes films like McQueen’s here to keep the level of knowledge where it needs to be.
One could easily argue that it is because director Steve McQueen is black that he decided to make this film, and make it as brutal as he did. One could make that argument, but I’m not going to be the one to do it; McQueen merely saw the material, saw the power of it in its raw, unfocused form, and chose to produce it unfiltered. So many other films that have slavery as even a cursory topic end up viewing it through some form of colored filter, so that it appears as only a caricature of an era long since passed. That’s all well and good, if it makes an entertaining and/or successful product in the end, but like I said in the opener, it’s a film like this that needed to be made at some point. What surprised me the most was that I didn’t fall in love with it to the level that most of everyone else did; hence, the rating I’m giving it. That should not, however, in any way discount the importance or the level of filmmaking and effect that this has, and will continue to have. It’s easy to see how this won Best Picture; it’s simply that good a film, and what’s more, it does end up being more than that.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10