(Requested by Arthur)
When writing about Shoah, I noted how some subject matters resist film criticism. Slavery would seem to be one of those subjects, but I’ve seen enough movies about slavery in the U.S. to know that there are good ones and bad ones and ones that are complicated (good and/or bad). 12 Years a Slave does not approach slavery the way that Mandingo did, or that Django Unchained did. The latter two are exploitation flicks, while Steve McQueen goes out of his way to make a film that is unblinking about slavery without appealing to prurient interest. It might be argued that the over-the-top nature of the exploitation movies is a better way to get across the vileness of slavery than a more genteel approach. And Mandingo must have made an impression on a few people … Tarantino has cited it as an influence, and the box office was good enough to inspire a sequel, Drum (which at least featured one of the great bits of dialogue in movie history, when Pam Grier asked Warren Oates if he liked big titties, leading to the immortal reply, “Oh, you KNOW I loves big titties!”).
You won’t find anything like that in 12 Years a Slave. And I’m not saying you should … 12 Years a Slave is up to something different than exploitation. But there is a slight distancing. McQueen wants us to come to his story and his characters without banging us over the head, and the result is a movie that is fine and intelligent and all the better for lacking the exploitation factor. But those other movies offer a hint to what McQueen gives up by making a classy film like 12 Years a Slave.
I don’t know that McQueen was positioning himself against the exploitation genre. In the context of film history, 12 Years a Slave is better compared to something like Gone with the Wind. There are no slaves in McQueen’s film that want to be slaves, and it would be pretty hard to imagine anyone watching the movie and wanting to be a slave, themselves. In that sense, 12 Years a Slave is a realistic portrait of slavery, one that doesn’t feel the need to rely on the romantic claptrap of GWTW or the charged-up fireworks of the exploitation movies.
But the emotional connection for the audience relies largely on the excellence of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who is always excellent). He is the perfect choice for his role … Solomon Northup is forced to maintain a front of illiteracy and ineptitude in order to survive, and Ejiofor’s ability to “act with his eyes” allows us to see both the feigned ignorance and the intelligence behind the playacting.
Too often, films about minorities are filtered through sympathetic white characters, which won’t work here … the slaves are African-American. And we can’t fault McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley for their source material, the actual life of Solomon Northup. But Northup’s existence as a free man with a wife, two kids, and a solid place in what looks like the middle-class community of his town, makes it inevitable that a central plot thread will be Northup’s attempt to return to his family in the North. It’s as if slavery is bad because it keeps Northup away from his real job and family. But slavery is bad for everyone, including the slaves who are left behind when Northup is finally rescued and allowed to return home. The emotional core of the film culminates when he sees his family once again, and pushes aside the experiences of all the other slaves who might not have come from a middle-class situation.
12 Years a Slave is good enough that the things I mention are mostly trifles. It’s a better movie than any of the others I mentioned, far better in most cases. It’s the quality of the film that makes me want it to be even more perfect. #140 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10. For a companion piece, maybe McQueen’s Hunger, which is equally strong, and my comments about that film seem to match some of what I say here: “Much of the film is presented in a rather dispassionate way … what we see inspires deep emotions from the audience, to be sure, but somehow McQueen maintains a certain distance from the material.”