If there’s one movie that I’ve had trouble discussing over the years it’s Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. I think Schindler’s List is a great film. Out of four stars I’d give it four stars. However, I don’t see it as some unassailable triumph that’s somehow above criticism. Rather, I see it as exactly what it is: a movie, and not one that is without its flaws. I think it’s too long and prone to digression, that the Amon Goeth sub-plot feels like it should be a separate movie, and that Liam Neeson lays it on a bit thick at the end. All too often though, people seem to get oddly offended at the very notion that there’s anything wrong with Schindler’s List at all. You can’t just think it’s a great movie; you have to be bowled over by it, and if you respond to it in any other way you’re suspect. Well I’m sorry, but that’s just not how I responded to it, and really that’s not the way I respond to any movie. Maybe I think too analytically or maybe I’m just not all that easily shocked, but simply showing me something awful from history does not really move me. I bring all this up because there seems to be a consensus building that the new film 12 Years a Slave could easily be the film on the subject of slavery what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust: display it in a way that is raw and honest, but within the context of a story that is accessible to a wide audience. And once again I’m in the precarious position of loving the movie while not necessarily being shocked into a state of awe by it.
The film is an adaptation of the memoir of the same name by a man named Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man who was born free and lived a relatively comfortable life in Saratoga Springs, New York circa 1841 with a wife and three children. Northup’s comfortable life shatters when he’s lured to Washington D.C. by a job opportunity and is kidnapped by two men and sold into plantation slavery. At first he’s owned by a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who fancies himself a preacher and is ostensibly kinder to his slaves than most, but who is ultimately still guilty of the underlying evils of slave ownership. After a quarrel with a cruel overseer named John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is sold to a much harsher owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who fancies himself as a breaker of “troublesome” slaves. Life under Epps is even more hellish than what we’ve seen previously, he whips people regularly, is having an abusive “affair” with a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and is prone to all sorts of senseless drunken cruelty. All the while Northup maintains the hope of once again seeing his family and of reclaiming his lost identity as a respected violin player and family man.
Earlier I compared the film to Schindler’s List but when I did that I was mostly referring to the films’ respective places in the wider culture. The film itself actually has a lot more in common with Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist than it does with Spielberg’s holocaust epic. Both films are told from the perspective of individual victims of historical tragedy (who happen to both be talented musicians for whatever that’s worth) and show how both individuals were able to survive their respective ordeals and maintain their identities along the way. It is of course worth noting that in this way both films are, depressingly, actually about “lucky” exceptions rather than the people who suffered the worst from these periods. The Holocaust is primarily remembered for the six million who were killed in death camps, not the few Jews who managed to hide in Warsaw until the war finally ended. Similarly, the vast majority of the people enslaved in the south had to live under such conditions for a lot longer than twelve years.
That’s the thing about this story, because of Northup’s status as an educated free man who is suddenly thrust into slavery he functions as an audience surrogate in a way that the average slave does not. That is the story’s advantage, but it’s also kind of dangerous. The film runs the risk of positioning Northup as a man in a uniquely unjust situation while perhaps overlooking the ongoing institutionalized dehumanization of the average slave. It’s a tension that the film does seem to be aware of and takes some steps to address. In particular, the film is wise to highlight the parallel story of a slave woman named Patsey, who is in the horrible position of being caught in the middle of a struggle between Epps and his wife. Patsey is forced to work just as hard in the fields as anybody, she is sexually abused by her owner, she must deal with outward aggression on the part of the owner’s wife, and is physically abused more than anyone else in the film including Northup himself. In short she is the face of both the female side of slavery and of the average life-long slave and does serve to highlight how exceptional Northup’s story actually is.
Of course I’ve spent so much time discussing the film’s depiction of slavery that this is the third film from director Steve McQueen, and that this alone makes the film extremely exciting. McQueen (who is of no relation to the famous actor), has already made two extraordinary films in Hunger and Shame and this may be the film where the wider public becomes privy to his talents. 12 Years a Slave is more accessible than his two previous films, but it doesn’t feel like he compromised his style in order to achieve this. McQueen is a guy with a unique sense of how to make his films feel unconventional while still allowing them look very professional and at times beautiful. It’s sort of like what I imagine David Fincher’s films would be like if he were making art house fare instead of Hollywood thrillers. I think the difference this time around is that he’s working with someone else’s screenplay and because of it the exposition is a little more straightforward and given that it’s a period piece the scale is larger.
It also helps that in this film McQueen has been blessed by an amazing cast. Michael Fassbender, who starred in McQueen’s first two films, is back again. This time he’s in a supporting role as the vicious plantation owner Edwin Epps, a truly vicious but also somewhat pathetic man. It’s a role that allows him to “chew scenery” and that’s exactly what he does to some extent, but the scenery chewing works here and the character he creates is simply frightening. However, the film’s star is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose role is a little less showy and is in many ways more challenging. He plays a highly dignified, if sometimes flawed, character and all through the film Ejiofor manages to convey that this dignity is intact even though the character is often forced to resort to “yes master” pandering. If anything Ejiofor makes his job seem too easy.
Another trendy British actor in the film is Benedict Cumberbach, who continues to show great range. His work here is different from the larger than life performances he’s given in films like Star Trek Into Darkness and also different from his work as a quirky genius on “Sherlock.” Instead he’s playing a very believably hypocritical man who is an interesting contrast to Fassbender’s character. The film also manages to get a good performance out of Paul Dano, of all people, who is well cast as a creepy redneck overseer. On top of all that the film also features a number of celebrities like Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, and Brad Pitt in small roles but they’re almost all outshined by a previously unknown Kenyan actress named Lupita Nyong’o, who is absolutely unforgettable as Patsey.
This is exceptional filmmaking and it tells an important story that illustrates a number of necessary truths about American History. But is it a masterpiece? Well, let’s just say that this is a film that’s almost certain to be somewhere on my year end top ten list, but reserving a slot for it on the next AFI list might be a bit premature. In fact I’m not quite ready to call it my favorite Steve McQueen film. Like Schindler’s List before it, I find myself greatly admiring this film without necessarily being shocked to my core by it. But that’s fine, if my recent re-watch of Schindler’s List has taught me anything, there’s nothing wrong with being “just a movie” and there’s definitely nothing wrong with being “just a great movie.”
**** out of Four