A free man from upstate New York is abducted and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Facing cruelty from his owner, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggles to stay alive, and to retain his dignity. Inspired by the true story of Solomon Northup.
TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: A person doesn’t find many true-blue horror movies at a high-profile festival. Being considered less serious, genre films—especially of the scary variety—require an artful disguise to slip past the gates of Cannes, Venice, or Telluride. At the latter, several of this year’s films—including Labor Day, All Is Lost, and Prisoners—flirted with horror, in some cases splicing it with melodrama or thriller genes. Traditionally it’s a careful flirtation, one that preserves above all the film’s sense of its own seriousness: here or there a trick or a hint of exploitation is well-blended, for maximum effect and minimum offense.
...plays like the corrective it was designed to be, and looks and feels like the work of a director who has never seen Roots, or Glory, or Amistad.
On its surface a traditionally wrought slave narrative, British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was not the most horrifying but the most horror-like thing I saw at Telluride. Other things I found it to be: tedious, numbing, relentless, dull, binary, and deeply uninspired. The overwhelmingly white, moneyed Telluride audience entered 12 Years a Slave, based on the true story of a New York musician kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, primed for an ordeal of great and cleansing seriousness. Many—though not all—left duly shaken by what McQueen described as the central character’s "assault course of slavery," and the critic who introduced the film (accurately) called an "inhuman odyssey." Though they may not have enjoyed or been particularly engaged by the film’s depiction of abject, near-relentless suffering, what it showed was, they reported solemnly, after all how it had really been, for many thousands of slaves.
Of the Solomon Northup’s (fiercely played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) suffering there can be no doubt. Living as a free man in Saratoga, New York, Northup makes a living playing classical violin for white people. He has dignity, a young family, and the esteem of his community. A lucrative gig with the circus takes him to Washington, where his business partners, two white men, kidnap and sell him to a slaver (Paul Giamatti, playing the third of the film’s numerous, broadly hideous white men; Paul Dano shows up as the fourth). Solomon wakes up in chains, and for the next two hours is trapped in a southern nightmare, where even his name is taken from him, and survival requires him to deny everything he knows and has been and assimilate as a slave. First bought by the relatively humane Benedict Cumberbatch, Solomon is later sold to a plantation horror-master played by Michael Fassbender.
At the Q&A following 12 Years a Slave’s Telluride screening, Fassbender was asked to describe working on a third film (after Hunger and Shame) with McQueen: "Well, I like to be punished," he said, "and Steve likes punishing people." No viewer of this most recent film could argue with that. But 12 Years soon left me wondering if punishment was an acceptable plot, or a viable substitute for story, and character. I wondered, as well, at the larger hubris of attempting, with scene upon scene of dramatically inert but viscerally enervating, prolonged and 'realistic" suffering, to make fathomable what no 2013 viewer sipping soda in an air conditioned theatre could ever truly fathom. Because during the second or third minute of watching Ejiofor, strung by his neck from a tree, gurgle on tiptoe, letting enough air slip by his windpipe that he might not suffocate and die, it occurred to me that this was exactly what McQueen was trying to do. As though our punishment might in even the slightest, most trifling degree approach that of a man who spent 12 years in unimaginably brutal captivity. As though we might know 'how it had really been" and must heed the call to bear witness. As though there were no other way to communicate or represent his ordeal, or no audience sophisticated enough for any but a doggedly graphic rendition.
For me, this is 12 Years a Slave’s greatest offense, both as a film and as an idea of what a film should do. After the screening, McQueen explained that his interest in telling a story about American slavery preceded his discovery of Solomon Northup’s memoir. He noted a lack of stories on the subject, and America’s general unfamiliarity with Northup’s story. Indeed, 12 Years a Slave plays like the corrective it was designed to be, and looks and feels like the work of a director who has never seen Roots, or Glory, or Amistad. The language (from a script by John Ridley) is high-flown and stiff, and scenarios that demand dramatic integrity suffer from an uncomfortable sense of cliché. Ejiofor is remarkable in a role that, as written, asks both too little and too much of him. Through what appears like sheer force of will, his performance—along with that of Nyong’o and Fassbender—adds dimension to an almost willfully one-dimensional script. Fassbender in particular is treated like a comic book villain, always lurking at the edge of the frame, at the ready, should the meekest sliver of light touch Solomon’s cheek, to step in and smother it. It is to the actor’s immense credit that he managed to imbue what is otherwise a paper monster with genuine, human wretchedness.
McQueen seems to think that subjecting Solomon (and the character of Patsey, Fassbender’s chosen pet, indelibly played by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) to more and prolonged violence and degradation is the key to making Northup’s story new. But the film’s hateful caricatures and broad violence (the audience I was in laughed awkwardly when a fallen Patsey, struck down by a jealous mistress played by Sarah Paulson, is pulled—by either her hair or her feet—from a dance floor with Vaudevillian swiftness) come off as an inferior, if bloodier, versions of the old. You might wonder how a director might handle a slave narrative post-Django Unchained, and in this case you might be sorely disappointed. It is this film’s unfortunate paradox that a story with so much at stake, rendered in what could only be good faith, should translate to so little.