Despite reports to the contrary, Steve McQueen’s Oscar-bait drama is not the greatest film ever made. It may well be the greatest film ever made about slavery, but that says more about the movie world than the work itself.
Playing real-life free man Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1840’s Louisiana, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a typically strong performance. As do his starry co-stars – producer/saviour Brad Pitt, slave trader Paul Giamatti, progressive plantation owner Benedict Cumberbatch, and Solomon’s main tormentor, psychotic owner Michael Fassbender – who inhabit a picaresque purgatory of almost Dickensian grotesquery.
Like Tarantino before him, McQueen pulls no punches in the depiction and infliction of violence. Quite the opposite. Solomon is beaten until the whip breaks, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) wails as her children sold off. Meanwhile, the scene where poor Patsey (the excellent Lupita Nyong’o) is whipped almost to death by a drunk, ranting Fassbender is so horrifying it eclipses the other 130 minutes.
It’s an unflinching film, and extremely well made, but it’s also a limited one: overlong, schematic, a touch distant. Sometimes it seems McQueen is only comfortable showing the nadir of human behaviour, something borne out in both Shame and Hunger. And no matter what Solomon endures, he’s never more than a noble cypher, a figure lost in the landscape.
The ultimate irony is that, even with an incredible true story, a once-in-a-lifetime cast and much technical expertise at his disposal, McQueen still can’t manage to make Solomon a person. Surely we’ve come further than that?
’12 Years a Slave’ Movie Times