In “12 Years a Slave,” the audience witnesses the atrocities of the 1840’s American South through the eyes of the African American Solomon Northup. The events are undeniably heart-rending, yet the protagonist views the tragedies, as does director Steve McQueen, from an emotional distance. Rarely does Northup interfere with the lives of the other slaves. His goal is survival, plain and simple, and while several opportunities arise for extreme moral dilemmas and dispiriting melodrama, the film shies away from the confrontation. Overt manipulation often cheapens the effect, but in this film so little influence is utilized that moments aching to be profoundly moving lack the potency required to elicit such a response. The subject matter lends itself to compelling stories, but the characters that suffer the worst injustices aren’t the primary focus and receive no closure.
A free black man living in Saratoga, New York, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) enjoys a comfortable upper class lifestyle with his wife and children. When two men claiming to be traveling entertainers convince Solomon to accompany them to Washington on a lucrative business venture, he agrees, only to quickly find himself the victim of a deplorable scam. Kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon is transported to a sugar cane plantation in the South where he is subjected to heavy labor and brutal working conditions. While he manages to use his skills in engineering and music to gain favor with Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon is soon transferred to the cotton fields of the notoriously cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Witnessing a new level of barbarity and torture to the slaves under Epps’ control, especially the frail Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), Solomon determines never to allow despair to overcome him as he patiently waits for his chance at freedom.
“12 Years a Slave” seems to purposely aim for historical retellings of largely popularized antebellum Southern atrociousness. It tackles its text with so much detail and unwavering focus that it forgets to entertain. Perhaps McQueen isn’t concerned with anything outside of merely educating (or reeducating, or reiterating). But in approaching the adaptation by John Ridley in such a manner, the audience is subjected to more than two hours of egregious callousness, predominantly absent of the small wins that orchestrate a dynamic moviegoing experience involving stark tragedies. While following his source material, he fails to illustrate concepts not seen before (1977’s “Roots” most memorably served as the apotheosis for extreme slavery woe) – resulting in an echoing of factual, dejected victims and their hellish bondage.
Pitiable is not a strong enough word for the indescribable levels of inhumanity. Yet despite the identifiable time period and barbarism motifs, McQueen still manages to infuse his signature, frank acknowledgement of sex. It’s also problematic that recognizable character actors, including Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, pop up throughout the scenes. Their performances are adequate but their faces remind audiences that it’s just a movie, taking away any hope that people will be uninterruptedly immersed in the harrowing accounts.
McQueen does, however, make excellent use of his studious camera and its exhaustive meditations, dwelling on faces as if to unearth their innermost thoughts, and music, which provokes anticipation and foreshadows continued despair, few hopes, and great adversity. On the other hand, an increasingly standardized jumbling of the timeline insinuates that projects seeking awards can’t be told linearly. What he doesn’t reveal is his own perspective, instead standing on the sidelines to let the audience soak up the calamity and interpret the agonizing endurance – without the guilty pleasures of revenge, redemption, or justice.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)