I saw Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” some time after the universally acclaimed film won Best Picture. Needless to say, my expectations were extremely high — and though the film is certainly better than most of the bile that Hollywood spews out, I found myself oddly disappointed by “12 Years a Slave.”
Of course, the true story of “12 Years a Slave” — free man Solomon Northrup’s abduction, enslavement and eventual freedom — is a harrowing and apt example of the horror and absurdity of slavery. My problem is not with the story, but the storytelling.
For such a profound and human tale, McQueen’s film is strangely lifeless.
Devoid of much aesthetic beauty, the film drifts from atrocity to atrocity with a cold distance reminiscent of Austrian director Michael Haneke, minus the academic pretentions.
The rather banal visual style of “12 Years a Slave” was quite surprising to me, considering the Turner Prize winning McQueen first made a name for himself as the creator of compositionally jarring, richly metaphorical video art installations.
There is one scene however that draws attention to itself: a scene in which Northrup is hanged inches above the ground. The camera gazes upon him, unmoving, while he tiptoes and squirms, attempting to relieve pressure for his neck.
The camera lingers for quite some time. Eventually, birds are heard chirping in the distance, and other slaves carry out chores and play, ignoring Northup’s struggle. This scene appears to be making an extremely problematic comment on slave (and viewer) complacency — that the slaves (and audience members) who watch the man hang but do not intervene are just as guilty the slave owners.
This thought — an interesting one indeed — remained largely unexplored throughout the remainder of the film, leaving me feeling that the long hanging shot was just a rather shallow attempt at making audience members feel uncomfortable … and not much more.
The film allows little time for exposition — before viewers even have a chance to get acquainted with Northup, the man is kidnapped and imprisoned.
Yes, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Northup is spectacular — but it troubled me that audiences are never really allowed to know much about Northup aside from his tragedy.
Similarly, when Northup finally returns home, he finds his wife has remarried — but since viewers were never permitted to see much of Northup’s interaction with his wife and family before his enslavement, the conclusion is robbed of some of its emotional weight.
Though the film was packed with fine performances and had an important tale to tell, I cannot help but feel that “12 Years a Slave” was not quite the masterpiece it has been heralded as.