Perspective is always valuable ; it’s impossible, really, to say now which of the films of this era will stand the test of time. The greats only become truly apparent much later. What we can say with some degree of certainty is when we’ve seen something genuinely outstanding in this day and time; when a film’s subject matter, artistic contributors, global context all come together with perfect synergy to mark out a film as truly essential. I rarely say that people must or should see a film; our tastes vary, what we need in a night at the cinema might ebb and flow, our individual levels of the appropriateness of difficult content is never universal. We can guide as to quality, but we should be very slow to glibly say that everybody should see a film for fear of wearing out the expression, breeding apathy and cynicism rather than engagement with great art.
With the scene thus set, let’s make this abundantly clear: everyone should see 12 Years A Slave. We can’t say for now if it will become an all time great – though my personal feeling is that it will; we can say with conviction that it’s easily the best film of recent years. It is perfectly directed and shot; the performances are uniformly strong without ever falling into the awards-bait trap of drawing attention to the performer; the story is conveyed clearly and moves quickly – this may be a film about important, urgent themes, but it’s no worthy issue film. It’s a story with characters who breathe deeply and fully. Despite the awful events played out before us, there’s dignity, intelligent insight and perfectly judged moments of wit and humour even in the middle of tragedy and suffering.
The story is the true one of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York in 1841 who is hoodwinked by people apparently keen to make the most of his musical talents and finds himself shipped to New Orleans, losing his name and spending 12 years as a slave. The film is based on the book Northup wrote after he’d gained his freedom, carrying with it a simple lack of sensationalism which refuses to flinch from realities we’d much rather avoid. The casual verbal hand-grenades of the n***** word; people as property; casual violence out of nothing; sexual abuse. It’s not these, though, that really compel me – as haunting and brilliantly conveyed as they are. I was left reeling instead by the normality around the violence and brutality. A scene where is man is left hanging is disturbing for the brutality of the act, for sure; more shocking still is how long the camera lingers on it, letting us see just how long life carries on as normal whilst a life is gradually snuffed out. Will we look away before someone intervenes? Which would we have done? Several times director Steve McQueen (only his third film) lets the beautifully composed camera shots linger far longer than would usually have been allowed, the better to take in the detail and the context, for reality to imprint itself in our minds.
At the centre of it all is an astonishing performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. It takes a special actor to carry such subject matter and not disappear beneath the weight of it or mug to the camera. His performance is note-perfect; as the camera lingers on him for what feels like an age at different times we see a gallery of emotions across his expressive face, movement barely perceptible but real and unmissable. One remarkable scene after a burial hones in on Northup’s grieving, angry, silent face as those around mourn and worship with the beautiful gospel cadences of Roll Jordan Roll. He’s too angry, too lost to sing; tears hang on the brink of falling. He’s barely containing himself. Until he sings, first quietly then with ascending volume, his hands finding the clapped rhythm. Anger isn’t pushed down; it’s transfigured into worship to find a deeper and truer reality than the awful facts of the situation.
Looking for faults, it would be easy to see Brad Pitt’s character, a moral voice and agent of hope, as a white rescuer. I don’t know the facts of the story – the book is on my ‘to-read’ pile – but it would have been equally unhelpful, I think, to portray every white person in the film as racist abusers. His is, like all the supporting players, a well judged and fleshed out part. That’s one of the many strengths of the writing in the film; no line is too small to get right. A distraught mother forcibly separated from her children hears a simple but unforgettable eight-word reply, delivered with such run-of-the-mill dispassion that it drew audible gasps of shock from the audience of which I was part. There were several moments like that – perfectly under-stated, delivered faultlessly, shocking enough to result in voiced disbelief.
Do not fall into the trap of presuming that this is a film to simply endure like bad-tasting medicine because it is ‘good for you’. It is good for you. but only because it is, like life, laced with beauty and hope even in the darkest moments. It will live you reeling; if you engage with it properly you can’t be the same person at the end. It’s not lecture or treatise, however; instead it’s a story, a real one, with flesh and blood and soul.
You really, really, really should see this. There is no good reason for it not to win every award, (if Steve McQueen wins the Best Director Oscar, he’ll be the first black man to do so – how very appropriate, should it be so); no rational explanation for anything else being the film of the year or decade. Where it sits in film history we’ll know in due course.
In the end awards and instant reaction don’t cement a film’s legacy. For now, whilst we wait, you should simply see it and let it change you.
I rated this film 10/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com