12 Years a Slave 2013 ★★½

I like my better half's description of this as a movie that you can be "neither entirely for, nor entirely against" (heading off any hurt feelings, consider that the individual 'you,' directed my way—I'm really not out to pop anyone's balloon). McQueen's bent toward art-installation aestheticizing makes for an odd fit with the slow-build emotions of the piece, which already seems at script-level to be taking a very cool and clinical approach (the better to show that this is, like, really horrific shit, I guess?). I wish I believed a lot of it; most of the time I felt like I was watching performers playing dress-up in a rigorously rehearsed, scrupulously researched simulation, not unlike the Village Restoration museum I'd often visit as a child, if graphic beatings and the worst sort of physical-emotional degradation were part of the tour.

This leads me to wonder: Is being unflinchingly graphic (and I'd argue McQueen hedges himself, even in several of the celebrated long takes) enough to say that you've challenged your audience? Imagination is still required to portray the worst aspects of mankind—you can show the actions full detail, but the real artist also confronts you with the nooks and crannies of the psyche that would inflict such beatings, such unspeakable physical and mental torture. This has never been McQueen's strong suit; at least as far as his movies go, he's an outside-in kind of guy. And there's usually not much 'in' there.

This makes the few truly complicated moments of the picture stand out all the more. The Alfre Woodard scene is spectacular, in part because it seems that McQueen briefly handed the reins—Sin City guest-director style—to Lee Daniels. (A bracing, dangerous dose of melodrama in an otherwise stiffly solemn affair.) And the graveyard spiritual number is simple, direct and beautiful, though I'd argue less because of Ejiofor slowly joining in with the choir than by the mere presence of singer Topsy Chapman. She lends the kind of deep-felt, echo-through-the-ages elation and insight that Mahalia Jackson brought to Imitation of Life (1959) and Beah Richards gifted, with such heartrending openness, to Beloved (1998). (Both of these titles are also, to my mind, American films that better examine, implicitly and explicitly, the horrible legacy of slavery.)

A final word—made of semi-straw, I admit—that I truly dislike the "derelict appendage" of film criticism that seeks to identify and exalt for all time the one movie that gets a given subject "right." I've noticed an especial rush to do this with 12 Years a Slave, and I feel the urge to caution that its existence does not negate any similarly-themed movies that may have come before, or may indeed come after. (I wouldn't even accuse McQueen and his collaborators of chasing after such slam-the-Good-Book-shut superlatives.) The subject is not closed because someone addresses it—to your mind—as well as you've ever seen. There is always more to see.

9 Comments

  • "Imagination is still required to portray the worst aspects of mankind—you can show the actions full detail, but the real artist also confronts you with the nooks and crannies of the psyche that would inflict such beatings, such unspeakable physical and mental torture. This has never been McQueen's strong suit; at least as far as his movies go, he's an outside-in kind of guy. And there's usually not much 'in' there."

    This is really great.

  • ^^^
    What he said.

  • I'm reading and nodding along with this. I'm glad the movie exists. I admired the cast, admired the period detail, admired the nature shots that seemed like leftover footage from The New World. And I felt drawn in. But it makes me want a better movie on the subject. Mostly, the lingering effect is, "Yeah, shit like this really happened... God have mercy." But I don't find that the movie has given me much to think about, or much reason to revisit it.

    Except for Alfre Woodard. I didn't realize just how much I miss her until I saw her in this. Man, she can steal a whole movie with one complicated glance.

  • The final paragraph is so, so right about so many films. I feel myself thinking that with most celebrated films that portray homosexuality.

  • So sorry, but your review has been scanned and tested and has been discovered to have high traces of being affected by over-hype of the film, your opinions about the director himself, and past films on the subject. the ratio of these contaminants to actual thoughts on the film itself is dangerously low. unfortunately, there is nothing to be done now. But in the future, you might want to consider cleansing your system of most of these toxins first (but not all since some of them are need to make the system work) before sitting down on your typing machine. Please contact me for successful cleansing procedures if need be.

  • A very white review, bravo.

  • Stunningly wrong review, apart from the last paragraph where you make a good point. Beloved is not better at examining the legacy of slavery. Also when you say:

    "most of the time I felt like I was watching performers playing dress-up in a rigorously rehearsed, scrupulously researched simulation"

    I mean...couldn't we all think that about any film? Couldn't you apply that to ANY film ever made? Because they ARE performers pretending at the end of the day. I disagree so much here because one of the most overwhelming aspects of this film was it felt SO INTENSELY real, the settings, the historical accuracy, the dialogue and the characters were so realistically and expertly portrayed. You ignored the acting which is ridiculously magnificent, Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o give utterly brilliant and believable performances. I don't think you can be human if you weren't moved by Ejiofor's performance, especially at the end.

    I think Steve McQueen and this subject matter is a perfect match, his clinical but passionate approach is EXACTLY what the subject of slavery needs, to get the most power out of it by truly displaying what actually happened with no sentimental crap because he and most of us are intelligent enough to realize that slavery was awful without sentimental bullshit. Its the most realistic depiction of American slavery there will probably ever be, and probably the most powerful. Profoundly powerful and emotional. Also do you honestly think McQueen hedges himself in the hanging/tip toeing in the mud sequence? I mean you REALLY think that!? Also is there any point though in exploring the nooks and crannies of Epp's psyche, its not about him, its about slavery itself and Soloman. You're probably a more intelligent guy than I am and everyone has opinions but come on this is a masterpiece!

  • Yeah the last paragraph of the review was good but it is mostly just contrarian white person attention grabbing.

  • Urgh, I just had to re-read this because I got an email notifying me someone else had commented.
    I wish I hadn't, it just left a bitter taste in my mouth. Again.
    Keith, I respect you as a critic, but this is without a doubt one of the worst professional reviews I've ever read.

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