Any film with an opening assertion ‘Based on a True Story’ can hold a mighty thrall on audience expectations that questioning the film’s credibility is often considered a veritable historical blasphemy. Such is the case of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave – a now universally acclaimed, soon-to-be Oscars award sweeper. It tackles the great sensitive American subject matter with such self-important, furrow-browed, fine-art seriousness and bruising emotional intensity that the film throws a protective veil over our critical faculties and pulling us instead into its tormenting, mercilessly cruel worldview of humanity’s evil that’s been etched forever in the dark history of man. The words “unflinching”, “compelling” and “masterpiece” have already been thrown like confetti over McQueen’s film, poster-friendly words that now possess little meaning and are regrettably employed as either box-office magnet or award season campaign. Anyone criticising this film for its shortcomings would probably end up as a social circle pariah, or in narrow-minded terms, a racist. Because hey, it’s a true story and how dare you insult this film and you’re not a human being blah blah blah.
First and foremost, McQueen’s work is a piece of cinema. Any work of cinema is open to manipulations, condensations and a great deal of subjectivity – despite being a ‘true story’. Unless an event is filmed in real-time in the real world during a certain period, then we have no right to refute any stake on authenticity whatsoever. That is if McQueen were present in 1841 and cameras were invented to capture the real Solomon Northup over his twelve years of enslavement, charting his harrowing journey from upper New York deep down to the antebellum South, then I’ll shut this review, fold my laptop and do something else worthwhile. But since McQueen claims this to be as “truth”, then I’ll put my argument on the table.
12 Years A Slave is not “truth” – it’s McQueen’s (and simultaneously screenwriter John Ridley’s) interpretation of Northup’s autobiography, which the man wrote himself in mid-19th century. I’m not refuting Northup’s story. The man has been through quite a lot. I am rallying against McQueen’s vainglorious claims in the same way I’ve perpetually debated that Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is one of the most historically inaccurate ‘based on real events’ films of all time. Yet Spielberg’s film never fails to make me weep, not only due to its deeply bruising content but its also its use of storytelling to make an intensely moving drama.
Don’t get me wrong, McQueen’s film has left me in a state of mess, my face wet with uncontrolled tears. Even worse at the film’s end, I felt emotionally battered, as if a figurative hand clutched my aorta and squeezed it to a near-pulp. It hurt watching 12 Years A Slave, because of the suffering Northup has been through and the atrocities committed to him and many other millions of slaves. Similar to Schindler’s List – an emotional response is inevitable. But our emotionality can also hinder a degree of critical remove, which McQueen’s film is very much likely to induce. Once you’ve wiped the tears away, and scrutinise the film for its nuts and bolts, you’ll figure out that what McQueen was trying to say throughout its entire running-time – that slavery is atrociously bad, that the African-American people have suffered tremendously, that the white slave masters are personifications of pure evil – is something we’ve already known before. Cinema has been in this junction plenty of times.
Spielberg’s Amistad, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, hell, even William Wyler’s 1959 epic tackled slavery in Ben-Hur, have all hammered home the message of the inhumanity of slavery – but since McQueen isn’t satisfied, he makes us sit down and watch scenes of torture, rape, whipping, agonising misery just in case you didn’t get the message so far. His approach, whilst nonetheless effective, often distracts rather than enlightens – a series of ultra-long takes that primps of self-congratulatory artistic judgement rather than for storytelling purposes. It’s a style he’s been fine-tuning in his previous efforts, the magnificent Hunger and the existentially haunting Shame (two films I unreservedly love), but curiously feels clinical in 12 Years A Slave. There are two scenes which truly worked for me: one is a close-up of Northup’s face in a gradual resignation to his fate amid a gospel song, and Northup’s letter being burned in the night, the embers dying out into the darkness. McQueen achieves such visual poetry that gives more added depth to his art.
Then there are the characters. Northup, for all his conflicted perseverance, ends up as passive figure in this narrative, one who waited for something to happen rather taking the matters into his own hands. Nonetheless, Chiwetel Ejiofor is tremendous in the lead role, shouldering an entire film that rests on his screen presence and ability to draw empathy. The emotions that stir in his face – may it be stoicism, hope, despair, anger – are those that only truly a great actor can muster and convey them with such expressiveness. Ejiofor accomplishes them all. Same with the supporting character of Patsey, played to wrenching intensity by actress Lupita Nyong’o, whose range is exhibited in a long, devastating unbroken torture scene. The supporting characters, meanwhile, end up as caricatures of ‘evil’. Morally black-and-white figures hellbent on perpetrating blasted grief. Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is revolting as the sadistic, alcoholic and rapey plantation owner but feel mono-dimensionally evil compared to the layered, malevolent nuances of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Epps’s wife is far more sinister than him, Sarah Paulson’s genteel façade masking an unspeakably horrifying cruelty. And then there’s Paul Dano as sub-master Tibeats, who functions nothing more as an outrageous hate-figure with barely any depth, and Brad Pitt as carpenter Bass, a Canadian who shows up seemingly out of nowhere and gives Northup and subsequently the film a resolution through blatant narrative manipulation. We all emerge out from this tragic show with lachrymose, tear-soaked faces, barely even wondering the film’s time-frame: has it really been twelve years? Obviously McQueen isn’t interested in measuring time whatsoever. In his eyes, torture and suffering are all that matters since the Oscar folks are paying attention.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen | CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt | SCREENPLAY: John Ridley | DISTRIBUTOR: Entertainment One | RUNNING-TIME: 133 mins | GENRE: Drama/Biopic | COUNTRY: USA/UK