12 Years a Slave

February 1, 2014
Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave', 2013
Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave', 2013

It used to be commonplace for directors to cut their teeth in the theatre before moving on to the cinema. In the future it seems likely there will be more directors who begin their careers at art school making videos and installations before progressing to full-length features. Steve McQueen is currently the most prominent example of this trend, having broken through the barrier that separates contemporary art from mainstream cinema. Other artists who have made long films, such as Yang Fudong or Matthew Barney, remain confined to the galleries, showing their work to a more exclusive audience.

It’s an amazing achievement for McQueen to have his fourth feature, 12 Years a Slave nominated for nine Academy Awards this year, but he has not completely transcended his art school origins. There is a static side to his directorial style that never allows one to forget the presence of the camera and become immersed in the story. I’ve yet to see anything by McQueen where the pacing or the dialogue seems up to the mark. His films might all be improved by more rigorous editing.

12 Years a Slave is his finest movie to date, easily beating his last effort – Shame (2011) – an irritating, shapeless study of a sex addict that stopped and started like an old jalopy. McQueen’s blunt style is suited to this diary-like memoir of slavery, which unfolds like a sequence of episodes rather than a finely-tuned narrative.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a black musician living with his family as a free man in Washington D.C. in 1841. When Solomon takes on a travelling commission from a couple of strangers he is kidnapped and sold as a slave in Louisiana. As the title suggests, he will spend the next 12 years at the mercy of the plantation owners and their brutal underlings. We know he will eventually get away, but we don’t know how. There is no suspense or mystery to this story, only a long, painful examination of the life of a slave in the southern states.

The obvious point of comparison is with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), another recent flick about slavery in the deep south. There is no doubt that Tarantino’s new age spaghetti western was slicker, more fast-paced and entertaining but it feels like a cartoon next to McQueen’s film, which is based on the writings of the real Solomon Northup. There was no sense of realism about Django, even though its crude, violent, white supremacists are not far removed from those we meet in 12 Years a Slave.

McQueen is more effective at conjuring up the hopelessness and grim monotony of a slave’s life, which is entirely at the mercy of the owner. Solomon is fortunate with his first master, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but still manages to make an enemy of the white managers. His second, Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), is a more dangerous proposition – a sadist and borderline psycho who metes out punishment on a whim; becomes violent when drunk, and lusts after a female slave called Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Fassbender puts in a convincing performance as a man gradually losing his bearings, intent on blaming others for his problems. The main issue for Solomon is simply survival. He has to be smart enough to be useful, but not so much as to be perceived as a threat. In this game his violin skills are an asset, but he must never reveal that he can read and write.

McQueen’s overriding theme is the indignity of one man professing to ‘own’ another, and the evils this generates. For Solomon the injustice is twofold because he is a free agent even under the existing laws of the time, but is unable to prove his case. The merest suggestion would put his life in danger. Ejiofor’s character must keep up a stoic front while grappling with his own sense of despair that he will ever be delivered from this ordeal.

12 Years a Slave is a powerful tale, starkly told. As an indictment of slavery it helps bring America’s dark past to life, prompting us to recognise that those same racial tensions still exist, albeit without legal sanctification. Yet as social commentary it is anchored in history. There is none of the sickening feeling one takes away from an off-beat documentary such as The Act of Killing (2012), which showed the awful continuity between the crimes of the recent past in Indonesia and present day attitudes.

Neither film leaves one eager for a second viewing, but 12 Years a Slave remains a drama, subject to all the usual expectations about plot development and characterisation. It is here that McQueen’s limitations are exposed, even though this film is a huge advance on anything he has previously made.

McQueen is a real chance to win the Oscars for best picture and best director at this year’s Academy Awards, but it would be a triumph for subject matter over skill. In the ‘directors’ category, David O. Russell, Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron are far more polished performers, while Alexander Payne has a better rapport with his actors. The edge that 12 Years a Slave enjoys is the serious nature of the story, which makes the polished comedy of a film such as American Hustle seem frivolous. This year’s awards will provide a perfect opportunity for the Academy to test its social conscience against its professional instincts.

12 Years a Slave
USA/UK, rated MA 15+
134 mins
Directed by Steve McQueen; screenplay by John Ridley, from a memoir by Solomon Northup; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 1 February, 2014.