THIS IS NOT A MOVIE, IT’S A TIME MACHINE
Oscar Nominee Movie Review – “12 Years a Slave”
Review by Matt Welton
The frequent lament that nothing we’re offered is new seems woven into the fabric of most conversations on the current state of popular cinema. We often blame the subject matter: the same old superheroes, scores of familiar remakes, yet another 16-hour adaptation of 123 pages worth of pre-teen fiction. We want new stories. Enter a film about American slavery based on a book written in 1853. Sure, the story isn’t new, the subject matter is familiar, yet the execution is completely innovative.
On the surface, “12 Years a Slave” is a movie about slavery: it takes place in the South, and the characters are dressed in period clothing. However, this is where the similarities to other Hollywood antebellum-era films end. Unlike most period dramas, “12 Years a Slave” doesn’t try to pass itself off as a historical movie. There are no era-defining events, no easy wrap-ups of national issues, no insights into specific cultures. It would have been easy to make “12 Years” into a soaring Hollywood epic. Instead, what director Steve McQueen crafts is a film that plays out as a universal meditation on human resiliency and acceptance, an examination on change and hopelessness.
“12 Years a Slave” is a Hollywood movie without the Hollywood tropes, and that is precisely what makes it resonate on a universal scale. In our quest for new content in art, we often forget that most of the truly successful masterworks, the one’s you see hanging in museums, take elements that are familiar and present them with a fresh focus in order to bind us closer to specific realities of existence. In “12 Years a Slave”, the period, characters, and struggles are all familiar to us – even the narrative structure is commonplace – but the ways McQueen invites us in, and how he allows us to witness the events, force us to stare down an original path leading towards a deeper exploration of our history and our fears. Several scenes jar us, force us to look deeper into a stock landscape. With the palette of an artist, McQueen presents the material with aspects that are completely divergent from traditional Hollywood storytelling. The individuality of the director merges with the familiar seamlessly, presenting a wholly accessible and original take on a subject often relegated to the background in Hollywood epics.
The acting in “12 Years a Slave” is one of those key divergent elements. In a movie about American slavery, it is hard to believe that there are no powerful scenes where characters break down; no supporting actor who triumphantly defies oppression while delivering a searing monologue about freedom; there is no rejoicing when the ordeals end, and no tear-stained goodbyes. The film presents us with powerful life contained deep within the characters, so deep that the emotions we expect are often hidden. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Solomon Northup, moves about confused and hopeless, complicated and silent, less like a character, more like a human. The turmoil and hope that would normally burst out of the eyes and mouth of any other character in any other movie is buried so completely inside Solomon Northup. Unlike most Hollywood movies, the oppressed don’t speak their misery out, they simply exist and watch; they wait. In their own ways, the characters accept their fate in order to deal with living. This is not to say that they are complacent, they are simply not aware that there is a theater filled with people to perform for. They are aware of what their words and actions would mean.
The understated acting is supported by the score, which so closely mirrors the emotional action that it goes largely unnoticed, resulting in an unfortunate Oscar snub. Most filmmakers use their score in order to remind us how to feel: the sonic landscape lies across the canvas in great waves forcing us to experience. In “12 Years A Slave” the score alternates between discordant violin scratches and more traditional orchestrated sweeps, creating a subconscious enhancement to mood. At times the score disappears entirely, highlighting long periods of ambient sound, accentuating the permanence of the moment. It is wholly original to experience a film where the score and the acting are so completely egoless.
“12 Years a Slave” is orchestrated in such a way that each individual component becomes lost, merging into one general theme. What is presented is not a film with the year’s best music or photography, script or acting, but a completely unified film emphasizing the terrors of injustice. “12 Years” is a study in impressionism: it lacks brush strokes, it is simple. The film allows the depiction of light and how it changes to remind us that time is an important element, the most important casualty in this struggle. There are interspersed shots of trees and water, striking awareness of the permanence of the world, a reminder that nature goes on, unchanged by man’s struggle. The composition of the film does not pander, it allows the action to exist. The look, rhythm and tone of “12 Years a Slave” offer no apologies, elicits no guilt; to do so would cheapen the existence of the people afflicted.
There is a haunting scene where Solomon Northup, framed in the far right corner of the screen, looks out into a distance that we are not allowed to see. The camera stays on his look. There is no music, no action, just a look. His eyes subtly shift and over time we realize that he has come to look directly down into the audience. Powerless, we cannot help him, and in our deepest recesses, we may find ourselves asking: would we help if we could? It is a simple, immobile shot lasting a minute and 20 seconds. We read into it what we will. Maybe Solomon looking at us isn’t asking for help, or making us accountable, maybe he is looking wondering why we are sitting in a dark room watching this when, with all our freedom, we could get up and do anything. We keep watching because it is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, yet it is so very familiar.
Lingering single shots come to define the style of “12 Years a Slave”, shots that are drawn out to lengths so completely unique in cinema. The holding of an image provides a lack of prompting; it respects the audience. The effect is so revolutionary that it can jar our national psyche. Steve McQueen fills the canvas, painfully lingering on what is uncomfortable, offering no resolution. His shots allow us to passively observe the realities and brutal action of inequality long after the initial pain has been felt. We sit and watch, complacent, waiting for the next event. The moments become something more than they were originally presented as, and the reality of slavery begins to be illuminated in ways that transcend anything formerly presented on the big screen, little screen, or buried in books.
This is not the same old slave film. Maybe it’s not that we sit about lamenting the lack of original stories, maybe what we’re really tired of is the same old way these films are presented. The obligatory love scene, the requisite amount of explosions, the central character succumbing to hopelessness a third of the way into the story. Maybe we are tired of the same old tropes. “12 Years a Slave” proves we may be fine with the same old story; rather, we are hungry for a new voice to tell it.
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Run Time: 134 Minutes
Distributor: Regency Enterprises