Director Steve McQueen told BBC News that his wife, a historian, was the one who suggested he make a film about slavery, and it was she who discovered an obscure 1853 memoir by Solomon Northrup for him to read. “Every turn of the page was a revelation,” he said. “As I closed the book I was angry at myself . . . because I thought, how did I not know this book? And then I realized that no one I knew knows this book. And that was it. I needed to make it into a movie.”
Before “12 Years a Slave,” there were only a handful of significant films made about slavery in the United States—“Roots,” “Amistad,” “Mandingo,” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” come to mind. Even the holocaust has inspired more films. But maybe it took a British director to tackle a subject and a period in history that America would rather forget.
Now that “12 Years a Slave” has won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA for Best Picture, more people will learn the story of how a black free man living in New York was kidnapped in the nation’s capitol in 1841, sold into slavery, and struggled 12 years to survive until his ordeal finally ended.
Like “Schindler’s List,” another Best Picture winner, “12 Years a Slave” can be a tough film to watch. A number of scenes show the dehumanization and objectification of slaves, while others are designed to illustrate the perverse cruelty of some “masters” and the physical and psychological tortures they inflict.
Northrup himself realized that the problem of slavery ran deeper than personalities. “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives,” Northrup wrote in his memoir. “He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.”
To the credit of McQueen and Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, they are able to portray the epic journey of one man and offer an implied critique of slavery without falling into the pitfalls of preachiness, melodrama, or clichés. It flows as a well as it does in part because of scenic construction that is as economical as it is emotional, with lingering extreme close-ups that magnify the moment. When Northrup is “broken” in a holding pen and battered until he will deny his true identity and admit he’s a runaway slave, the process seems to take no longer than necessary for us to believe it. There is no excess footage. And while you’d half expect point-of-view cinematography to dominate, for the most part the filmmakers opt for fly-on-the-wall storytelling, establishing the viewers as third-party witnesses. In the end, that decision, along with cinematography that injects small moments of beauty into an otherwise bleak narrative, as well as strong performances, make for a compelling film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a solid, Oscar-nominated portrayal of Northrup, a violinist who lives the life of a gentleman in upstate New York with his wife and two children. But when his family leaves to visit relatives, he’s duped by a couple of fast talkers who promise him fast money for a quick gig in Washington, D.C., only to wake up in chains in a holding cell. Before long he’s on a boat with other kidnap victims and being marketed, naked, in front of Louisiana plantation owners. After that it’s a clash of wills and a study in resilience, with the filmmakers careful to balance the sadistic slave owners with more sympathetic ones.
Michael Fassbender earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as a drunken, twisted, mean-spirited plantation owner, but I found Paul Dano’s interpretation of a sadistic overseer who senses Northrup’s superiority to be just as praiseworthy. On the positive side of the ledger we’re also shown a sympathetic master (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an abolitionist (Brad Pitt). And, of course, Lupita Nyong’o, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is nothing sort of amazing as the battered slave Patsey,
There’s some grain, but a historical film like this needs a little grit. The level of detail—even in low-lit scenes—is superb, with sharply defined edges and clarity most evident in deep-focus shots. I saw no issues with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB Blu-ray disc, and the colors are situationally splendid—bright and almost oversaturated in some urban scenes, and tending slightly toward browns and golds and other earth tones in the cottonfield scenes. “12 Years a Slave” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional options in Spanish, French, and English Descriptive Dolby Digital 5.1. The Hans Zimmer score really crackles with vitality, and the subwoofer pulls just enough weight to lend presence. Dialogue is clear even when lines are whispered, and ambient sounds are scattered believably across the effects speakers. Subtitle options are English SDH and Spanish.
The bonus features, for a film based on a true story and a high-profile period in history, are somewhat disappointing. The longest feature is “12 Years a Slave: A Historical Portrait,” but the 41-minute featurette offers mostly a parade of cast and crew talking about how grateful they were to work on the project with McQueen. We get some history as Ejiofor reads sections from the book, but there’s not enough history or book-to-film distinctions to satisfy the historical minded.
Other than that, the only other bonus features are an eight-minute look at the visual content of the film via production design, costumes, and hair/make-up, and a four-minute featurette in which composer Hans Zimmer talks about his score. Apart from that there’s just the UV copy, promo trailers, and the original theatrical trailer.
Much of it is difficult to watch, but “12 Years a Slave” is that rare film that’s both important in its message and a darned good film all the same—no doubt why the Online Film Critics Societyrecently ranked it Number 23 among the 86 Best Picture winners, with only “No Country for Old Men” (2007) finishing higher among winners in the 2000s. “12 Years a Slave” is a moving and captivating film, though, rated R for violence, cruelty, some nudity, and brief sexuality, it’s not exactly family fare. Runtime is 134 minutes.