12 Years a Slave ★★★★★

“What difference is there in the color of the soul?”

An artist at heart, Steve McQueen is not here to fucking entertain you; there’s a human condition to be explored. Whether he’s depicting agonizing physical debilitation or the private hell of sex addiction, there’s no denying that McQueen’s films are the opposite of passive viewing experiences. They are pitilessly exacting works that often pummel us into submission, yet still find poignant moments of humanity within the darkness. ‘12 Years a Slave’ is McQueen fearlessly rewriting nearly a century of whitewashed narratives about one of the few remaining taboos in American cinema: slavery. Aside from Brad Pitt’s presumably obligatory cameo, there are no white saviors to be found. Slavery is depicted for precisely what it was: a dehumanizing process of exploitation that stains our country’s legacy to this day. At once unwatchably bleak and, in its deliverance, unutterably moving.

Based on the famous 1853 slave narrative by Solomon Northrup, ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a vivid, beautiful, and profoundly moving piece of work, the more so for eschewing straight-up adaptation to find something a lot more impressionistic, elegant, and evocative. Centered around a rivetingly soulful and magnetic Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film traces Northrup’s capture and enslavement chronologically, yet without the kind of plodding linearity that can sink literary adaptations. Instead, McQueen selects incidents and events from this twelve-year period in an almost curatorial fashion, so the enslavement feels like it unfolds in a nightmarishly unending present tense. Stunningly shot by Sean Bobbit as a quiet, intense meditation on a perverse, degrading, revolting institution, it ultimately also becomes a topical reminder of the brittle, porous, and hypocritical membrane that separates so-called sophistication from outright barbarism.

McQueen’s pummeling historical drama is itself a kind of balancing act. It is a rapturously stylized work from a former visual artist that never loses sight of the human atrocities and deep sense of rage and sorrow that exist at its center. It is also a film filled with some rather big performances - Michael Fassbender’s unapologetically teeth-gnashingly evil Edwin Epps - that never goes so huge as to lose sight of its central social themes. ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a film filled with great turns from great actors, though there may have been none more surprising at the time than the one given by the little-known Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o plays Patsey - a hard-working servant who nevertheless suffers under the odious, sadistic rule of Fassbender’s plantation owner, enduring all manners of cruelty and humiliation at his hands. And yet, as envisioned in McQueen’s film, Patsey is no victim. She harbors a deep sense of pride, even if her ignorant white overseers have done their best to strip her of those qualities. Nyong’o captures this woman’s emotional fortitude with unflinching clarity. The actor would go on to give stranger performances in more broadly accessible work (her turn in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ comes to mind immediately), but her work here is some of the best work she may ever do. 

In amplifying the tactile qualities of seemingly innocuous details (violin strings being wound taut, blackberry juice crammed desperately into a makeshift pen), ‘12 Years a Slave’ sidesteps the conventions of other films depicting similarly tragic tribulations. Instead, natural beauty is consistently presented as a counterpoint to human corruption. ‘12 Years a Slave’ never felt like just another case study for McQueen and his preoccupation with power structures. By creating a maximalist melodrama entrenched in one of America’s most painful and corrupt periods, McQueen indirectly makes a political statement about the status quo of cinematic representation: we can do better in fictionalizing America’s past, no matter how ugly it is.