12 Years a Slave (2013)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) My life circumstances at the moment mean that I rarely get to watch a film from beginning to end, uninterrupted: I often have to watch films in 30-minutes intervals and while that usually annoys me, it proved to be a relief in taking in 12 Years a Slave, as unflinching and dismaying a depiction of slavery in the antebellum American south as anything we’ve seen on-screen –at least since the deliberately more exploitative Django Unchained.  The true story of a black free man kidnapped and pressed into service for more than a decade away from his family, 12 Years a Slave is designed to be infuriating and depressing at once.  Once stuck in the slavery system, our protagonist gets no say over his well-being; in fact, the first thing he understands is that the truth will not set him free, and may serve to kill him.  The second thing we viewers learn is that a system of slavery means that everyone is prisoner of that system; even kind and god-fearing people are beholden to its requirements, making any escape seem remote.  Director Steve McQueen never shies away from the shocking moments, and sometimes even designs his films to confront viewers with the horrors of the situation: witness the agonizing minutes-long hanging shot, or the uninterrupted whipping sequence.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent in the lead role, but the film benefits from strong supporting performances by the likes of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who serves as the audience’s conscience by playing a Canadian.  I tend to expect the worst from movies that play up their social-conscience themes, but 12 Years a Slave shows self-confident filmmaking savvy, and stands out as a fantastic piece of work even with the harsh subject matter.  Don’t miss it, even if you have to take a break from the horror once in a while.

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