12 Years a Slave ★★★★★

The story of American slavery, and all of its evils, has already been told. But I’ll submit that it has never been told with such nuance and depth that it forces a connection beyond the obvious situational pathos of this harrowing era of history.

Steve McQueen has an incredible ability to bring a huge amount of depth to his characters and make them feel far more real and compelling than their screen time would seem to allow. Take, for example his last film, Shame: a film that explored the internal evils of compulsion and addiction in microscopic scale. Its huge success was in its conveyance of a character’s battle with himself, more than it was in developing an arcing storyline, and it devoted the entire film to a very limited scope of characters. 12 Years a Slave is vastly different in both scope and purpose, and yet somehow McQueen is able to still imbue his characters with remarkable depth while at the same time maintaining a far larger overall narrative.

McQueen’s artistic voice is a challenging one, though, and it’s possible to misread his intentions as grave and deterministic because he is brave enough to understand that every situation, every decision, and every eventuality is incredibly nuanced. Even though the film’s narrative drives towards a "happy ending” situationally, for these characters there could never remotely be a happy ending. That’s an aspect reflective of many things that occur throughout this film, and it’s easy in many cases to overlook the film's depth for the fact that the surface is so incredibly rich to begin with.

Obviously there’s a great deal of nuance in the performances of his stacked cast of actors – especially for Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch and Dano. But to give them full credit is to deny McQueen’s ability to reinforce these performances with clear decisions in his storytelling, especially in his compositions and pacing, and would completely miss what makes this movie so powerful.

On the technical side, the film is aesthetically beautiful, and the artistry that grabbed my attention the most is Hans Zimmer’s diametric score. It’s remarkably sparing through much of the film, but is prone to erupt in deep growling baritones and aggressive percussion that encapsulate the raw intensity of what’s unfolding onscreen.

I think this film is beyond worthy of the accolades and critical reception it has received, but for reasons far greater than I expected from an emotionally-wrenching story like this. As I’ve made pretty clear, hanging the film’s success on its sorrowful narrative and the performances of its talented cast does a huge disservice to what the film accomplishes in the hands of a visionary who truly understands how to capture the grey between the black and the white.