|Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup has his last meal as a free man in "12 Years a Slave."|
“12 Years a Slave” has received universal acclaim, but what else would you expect from a historical drama like this? For one, it exploits a painful time in the country’s history, and two, it makes a hero out of a normal person. Look at “Schindler’s List,” “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” and even last year’s “Lincoln.” All three films were showered with praise for doing just that.
This is exactly what I was hoping Steve McQueen wouldn’t do with “12 Years,” but I was wrong. The English auteur threw out his signature raw style for a convenient and rudimentary way of telling a story we’ve seen time and again.
I’m not saying that Solomon Northup’s story as a free man thrust into slavery wasn’t a remarkable one, but there is nothing about the story that McQueen or screenwriter John Ridley did to make it interesting or different from any other movie made about slavery.
That’s the problem with Hollywood, they beat the same historical stories to death (Holocaust, Slavery, any war) and we’re just being fed metaphorical spoonfuls of forced regret and sympathy for the people we hurt.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots, Children of Men), “12 Years A Slave” shows how Solomon was drugged in Washington D.C. and then sold into slavery. From there we see him trying to get through different plantations and masters including the sympathetic William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the cruel married couple Edwin and Mary Epps (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson), all the while making acquaintanceships with other slaves and a Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt in an awful cameo appearance).
Book unread, the only thing I know about Solomon is what was put on the screen. He was a skilled, intelligent man who knew how to play the violin and could build a house. This is how he appears to get by most of the time. Although told by another slave that his intellect would hurt him in the long run, it’s what kept him out of trouble. He did, however, whip one of his masters and was forced to hang on a branch with his toes barely touching the ground for hours. With the aforementioned hanging and a whipping in the beginning, Solomon appears to have “escaped” far better than others.
With McQueen at the helm I thought he would have made it a deeper and more emotionally impactful experience, much like with his directorial debut “Hunger” (which also starred Fassbender). It’s like he gave up his experimental and raw style for a textbook example of how historical films should be. Awful music accompanies, or distracts, depending on how you look at it, the movie, the acting was adequate for the story (not Oscar-worthy like everyone is going on about), and there are two horrible clichés in the film; the 'slavery is bad' speech and the title cards at the end telling us more about Solomon.
What a great opportunity this would have been for McQueen to break down these clichés and present us something we had never seen before, but no. Forget the awesome work with “Hunger” and “Shame” that brought him notoriety, and let’s play it safe. Because it is still a sensitive subject it seems to critics that it’s a fail-safe for any director to tackle. For them, there’s no wrong way to do slavery or holocaust, and a master like McQueen has been reduced to mainstream formalities instead of independent freedom.