12 Years a Slave Prizes Radiance Over Life

<i>12 Years a Slave</i> Prizes Radiance Over Life
Jaap Buitendijk
We're buying a ticket for Dr. Ben Carson, who says Obamacare is as bad as slavery.

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is the movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler. The story it tells, a true one, is horrifying: In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free, educated black man from Saratoga, New York, was kidnaped, sold into slavery, and transported to Louisiana. His captivity lasted 12 years. To survive, he had to hide the fact that he could read and write, which prevented him from contacting not just his wife and children, but also any of his friends in the North who might have helped him.

Northup recounted his story in 12 Years a Slave, a piercing memoir published in 1853. The title alone is austere and direct, almost painfully elegant, and that must have been the effect McQueen was going for, too. His interpretation of 12 Years a Slave is beautifully shot (by Sean Bobbitt), contrasting the all-too-visible evil of mankind with the occasional ribbon of pretty sky peeking through the Louisiana trees. The story is told with calm clarity, its pace stately and respectful in accordance with its subject matter. John Ridley's script hews closely to the language and details of Northup's book. Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti all render their services in villainous roles, playing, respectively, a twisted slave owner, a megalomanic, murderous overseer, and a sleazy slave trader. It's all so perfect, so right.

But is there any blood in its veins? 12 Years a Slave is a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery. Aside from a characteristically nuanced lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor—plus an oak-tree-tall supporting one by Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as a breath of movie-star vitality from Brad Pitt in a very small role—it's a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity. In one scene, Fassbender's creepy plantation owner forces Ejiofor's Solomon to whip a female slave who has sneaked away to a neighboring plantation for a bar of soap. The camera moves slowly, in a partial arc the shape of a comma: It takes the measure of the grisly brutality of the scene, and of Solomon's anguish, without really breathing it in. The moment is terrible, yet it comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.

Location Info

Map

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

1886 Broadway
New York, NY 10023

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: West 60s

AMC Empire 25

234 W. 42nd St.
New York, NY 10036

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: West 40s

Regal Union Square Stadium 14

850 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: Union Square

Details

12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Fox Searchlight
Opens October 18, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, AMC Empire 25, and Regal Union Square



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That's a style, a choice. Filmmakers—the best ones, at least—think and feel through images, and the artisanal remoteness of 12 Years a Slave isn't such a surprise when you consider McQueen's two previous features, Hunger, a beautifully controlled picture about Bobby Sands's hunger strike and death, and Shame, a meditation on sex addiction that's as obsessive and single-minded as a lady-killer looking for his next conquest. McQueen, who is also a video artist, has a superb sense of composition, and he always knows just how and where the light should hit. In an early scene in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon, after being deceived and drugged, wakes up in chains, locked in some dungeon-like room. Contrasted with the inky blackness around him, the billowy white shirt he's wearing practically sizzles; small parcels of light glint off his iron chains, giving off a matte, dull glow. It's an image of great visual beauty. And it looks like art direction.

There's no reason a movie dealing with an ugly subject should be ugly itself. And there is an upside to that remoteness: McQueen isn't out to punish or scold us with his filmmaking. Northup's story is anguishing, and McQueen seeks only to tell it; he knows there's no need to bludgeon us. But compared with Lee Daniels's The Butler, a movie about another angle of the African-American experience, 12 Years a Slave is buffed to a dry, prestigious sheen. You could go to a European cocktail party and profess your love for it without having to apologize. Try doing that with The Butler, a messier movie with an unapologetic pop sensibility—it features a supporting turn by Oprah, after all. It's not nearly as pretty, but it's alive.

12 Years a Slave works so hard to be noble, but it doesn't have to: Ejiofor is there to do all the heavy lifting. Too often stuck playing astrophysigeologists in Roland Emmerich movies, Ejiofor brings all his gifts to bear here. His subtlety is the earth-moving kind: He could probably shift a mountain just by arching an eyebrow. Northup's book is written in the slightly formal, manicured language of a well-educated man, yet its directness is heart-stopping. "I was heart sick and discouraged," he wrote, describing his despair after suffering the first of many brutal beatings. "Thoughts of my family, of my wife and children, continually occupied my mind. When sleep overpowered me I dreamed of them—dreamed I was again in Saratoga—that I could see their faces, and hear their voices calling me. Awakening from the pleasant phantasms of sleep to the bitter realities around me, I could but groan and weep." 12 Years a Slave takes the spirit of that prose and arranges it with painstaking, distracting care for the camera. Ejiofor carries it inside him, hidden. And still, the light shines through.



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31 comments
paul2349
paul2349

Thank you!  My wife and I just saw the film tonight and couldn't put our finger on what was missing.  What was missing were 3-dimensional people.  The relentless beatings and cruelty -- intended to horrify -- instead angered: the anger being directed not at the horror and crime of slavery, but rather at the director for scenes that -- if not gratuitous, simply were not organic; the movie had no soul; it did not breathe.  For all it's horrors and faithfully rendered scenes of beatings and degradations, it was oddly unemotional and we had no investment in its characters...other than Ejiiofor,who commanded your attention throughout.

fwd079
fwd079

Movie won an oscar, your review sucked, simple :)

jsandri9104
jsandri9104

The better book review publications typically employ a subject matter expert to review a particular book. For example, a historian who specializes in the colonial era may review a book on George Washington. Somehow this reviewer was assigned to review a fairly specific subject, yet has no obvious expertise in the era or in the related background motivations of the characters. Yes, the movie expects much from the audience in the sense that to fully grasp the underlying context there needs to be a preexisting knowledge base.

From conversations with folks who have read a bit about the era prior to watching the movie, much of this review is simply an off - the - mark gathering of misguided style points. As for the movie, it is on point.

hengel
hengel

Here! Here!  I couldn't agree more with everything in this review.  I'm glad to find out that I wasn't the only person who felt this way.

omtndlsswrds
omtndlsswrds

Solomon Northrup did not write 12 Years a Slave. It was told to David Wilson, a white lawyer and fiction writer, who then wrote the narrative based on Northrup's telling of the tale, showing him the manuscript for final revision and approval. You can read these details in the Editorial Preface here: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/northup/northup.html


Chicago
Chicago

   The excellent actors fleshed out their characters as best they could despite a meager script and minimal direction.  Chiwetal Ejiofor carried the film by sheer charisma.  Sitting through all the whippings was excruciatingly boring.  After a couple, redundancy inures one, and you become perfectly aware that it's the director's hand commanding yet another detailed and prolonged beating.  Watching actors endlessly grimacing is not heart-wrenching, but it is tedious.  Emotional investment requires character development, of which this film has none.  Everyone is one-dimensional, starting with Northup's family walking down the street.  That's all they do.  He has no significant or even interesting conversation with his wife.  It's painfully obvious that they're actors representing love and happiness.  The rest of the film is actors representing misery.  This is a film about the conditions of slavery, not about people.  The director's great idea was to film strictly from Pratt's perspective.  He never sees behind the scenes of the ruling class, so neither do we.  He never has a meaningful relationship, so we don't experience any and we never get to know anyone.  The hanging/choking incident was affecting precisely because the camera took off the blinkers and crept outside Pratt to show the depth of customary cruelty, a devastating contrast of life going on, as if everything were normal.  If we care about Patsy, its because she's a good actress representing injustice and vulnerability, since we don't know anything personal about her.  What do we know about her?  The only thing we know is that she'll be constantly victimized.  Watching any creature tortured evokes sympathy and outrage.    The main reason this film is deemed great is because McQueen is a current darling of the art world.  I stumbled into an exhibit of his, and it was BOOORRRIIING.  The film has moments, but it's not great.    It's just a bare sequence of events, unimaginative and soulless, the very qualities for which McQueen is admired.  People, wake up:  The emperor has no clothes!      

stephaniezachareksux
stephaniezachareksux

This lady is also a lady that hated The Dark Knight Rises, Avatar, and several other great films. Look, Stephanie, we get it, you're too "by the book," to appreciate great films that everyone likes, but you should not have a job here. People should not pay you to critique works of true art, because frankly, you try too hard to pick them apart.


YOU SUCK! Everything about your review process is wrong.


-Film Studies Major

moviemavenalbany
moviemavenalbany

A persnickety review if there ever was one. The critic should join the ranks of Slant magazine where films nearly universally acclaimed get the same harsh treatment. I was in tears at the end of this film, not because it was schmaltzy but because what was rendered on screen was all too real. "12 Years a Slave" is a towering achievement.

moresmores
moresmores

This is a facile review. The critic is essentially saying that the film is made too well; or, that if it wasn't rendered as tightly as it is, then it would be better and have more heart. Why, in art criticism, does a loose process equal heart, and vice-versa, a highly considered process equal no-heart? Expert craftsmanship should be celebrated, not a point of criticism, and in my opinion it is the entry point into the heart of the film. 

groovciti
groovciti

It's amazing how much she praises McQueen for his work then tries to castrate him for the same work. If she can't feel this piece, she has no nerve endings

Nacho Guijarro
Nacho Guijarro

Dying to watch it...when it comes to Europe!! (Y)

mountainsoflight
mountainsoflight

Wow, Stephanie.  I have absolutely no idea what emotional meter you were using on that film.  I found it gut wrenching, devastating and cathartic.  A sociological horror movie where my own sense of safety and personhood felt threatened every step of the way.  That's one of the great geniuses of the film.  It's the only film about slavery I've ever seen where I completely identified with the enslaved main character's experience.   I was walking in his shoes or better "forced" into his bondage and every brutality and moral outrage stung and astounded me.  And the finale scene reuniting him with his family had me and much of the audience wiping tears from our eyes.  Did you see this film alone?  People were gasping and sobbing several times in the film and it was a diverse crowd.  We were all worn out afterwards.  I went home feeling like a great big fat, sloven slave master was sitting on my chest.  Maybe one is sitting on all of our chests and this film just finally made us feel the weight.   It was just a haunting experience.

thealpinezone
thealpinezone

To each their own, but how you failed to experience any "raw feeling" during this movie is absolutely incomprehensible to me.

SoulStylist81
SoulStylist81

That opening sentence is bound to piss a lot of people off. 

Taplinger
Taplinger

I've been a huge fan of Stephanie since her days at Salon.com and I'm thrilled to see her at the Voice. The only misstep in her career was liking "The Hurt Locker." 

stephen.forrest
stephen.forrest

That very document describes Wilson as an "editor"; in modern terms we would call him a ghostwriter. It is overmuch to say that Northup "did not write" the text, nor does Wilson assert the narrative is based on Northup's oral account.

Your suggestion otherwise and allusion to Wilson as a "fiction writer" suggests you have some motive for undermining Northup's credibility.

Chris
Chris

@sirfartyfartsalot A critic's job has nothing to do with "ruining," or "upholding," the RT score.  Rotten Tomatoes is the blight of the internet, by making it seem that consensus and groupthink is the purpose of criticism.  I, in general, detest Zacharek's writing, and have said so many, many times - but there are enough valid criticisms of her work without attacking her for failing to uphold some perceived uniformity of opinion.  I would not attack Zacharek for departing from majority opinion, just as I would not celebrate her for dovetailing with the majority, as she did with The Social Network and The King's Speech.

malackow
malackow

Right?  It's preciously clever.  I can't decide if I'm supposed to feel badly for disliking THE BUTLER or for being educated.  Both?

However, her criticism of 12 YEARS A SLAVE is well-grounded.  I thought the same thing, exactly.  Then again, having seen the ice-cold SHAME, I expected as much.

vorjay
vorjay

@SoulStylist81 yea. I guess when the blacks get one black movie they don't need another one the same year.  What a moron this women can be.  She's been laid-off from god knows how many sites.  She should get the hint and start writing for 'Better Homes and Gardens'.

epac666
epac666 topcommenter

Liking the Hurt Locker was a misstep?? What planet are you from?

Chris
Chris

@sirfartyfartsalot I like and admire a lot of the people involved with this film, BTW.  But that's separate from the RT issue.  The RT score can be highly misleading anyway.  A movie that everyone likes and admires, but not fervently, can get a near-perfect RT score, even as a movie that's deeply divisive, that has passionate, fervent, fanatical admirers AND detractors in about equal measure, can end up with a rather low score, even though its fans really, REALLY love it far more intensely than fans of the other movie.  Some of Terrence Malick's or Lars Von Trier's movies - and ironically, even Steve McQueen's previous efforts - fall into this category.

malackow
malackow

There are at least three of us.

epac666
epac666 topcommenter

@SoulStylist81  Congratulations Stephanie, you found the 2 people on planet earth who didn't like that movie.

 

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