How painful must a historical reenactment be in order for it to establish authenticity? This was a question I had while watching 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his devastating Shame. His latest tells the story of Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofer, a free black man living with his wife and family in 1841. His skill as a violinist is noted by two white businessmen, who promise him employment. After a night of friendly drunkenness, Solomon awakens to find himself in a cell, shackled in chains and being abused, referred to and sold as a slave to white owners.
McQueen demonstrates his command as a filmmaker, as he orchestrates astonishing, sometimes beautiful shots that often go on unbroken for minutes at a time. He also never hesitates to rub his audience’s faces in the muck, taking challenging subject matter and making viewers witness the darkest impulses of humankind. McQueen’s deadly serious, heavy-handed approach to storytelling makes him both an ideal and unfortunate choice to tell this story, which will be an endurance test for just about every audience member.
The grotesque “logic” and behavior of life on a slave plantation is filmed in close-up and the actors admirably go full tilt in committing to this nightmare scenario with brutal honesty. I don’t know for sure how accurate a history lesson this is, but I suspect the truth was likely even more disgusting to bare than what we see here.
While far from the first movie to depict the horrible life of a slave, McQueen seems to have attempted making the definitive statement on the subject. He may well have succeeded, having gone too far at showing the ample barbarism and not far enough at providing insight. Ejiofer’s performance is breathtaking but Solomon has no inner life. We see his strength and intelligence getting him through one awful day after another but his outward reactions are all we have to go on. The other characters feel more like symbols than fully fleshed out individuals, when a deeper exploration of their mindset could have elevated the behavior above what we expect from these stories.
A scene early on shows Solomon being whipped: the camera gets in close to Ejiofer and doesn’t cut away as the scene goes on for a painfully long time. If this were the only sustained sequence of graphic violence, it would have been enough, but McQueen goes far beyond that one scene. If it’s all in the name of art providing an important encapsulation of an unfortunate time in American history, then we can let him off the hook. Maybe. As it stands, only The Passion of the Christ compares with how hard this is to watch.
The famous faces in the cast don’t make this any less painful to endure. Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano and particularly Michael Fassbender portray living embodiments of bigotry at its most evil. Brad Pitt’s initially distracting appearance provides him with two good scenes, while Adepero Oduye and Lupita Nyongo’oas are heartbreaking at portraying the hellish existence of women enduring the abuse of their slave masters.
The comparatively gentle Lee Daniel’s The Butler is easier to take, though it shares an episodic narrative, frequent star cameos and portrays a tragic time in U.S. history. This one has remarkable scenes of powerhouse acting and artistry behind the camera. A continuous shot of Solomon’s tortured face while singing “Roll Jordan Roll” with other slaves during a funeral is unforgettable. So is the scary nighttime encounter between Solomon and Fassbender’s vicious slave owner.
As an expertly crafted story and a showcase for great filmmaking and acting, it deserves honorable recognition. But as an endurance test, I barely passed.
Score: ** and a half stars (1-5 Star Scale)