12 Years a Slave stands apart

Steve McQueen brings a new vitality to historical drama

'12 Years a Slave' follows the story of Solomon Northup.
'12 Years a Slave' follows the story of Solomon Northup.

12 Years a Slave is a true-to-life tale of human endurance made all the more remarkable for the circumstances in which it occurred: the slave trade of 19th-century America.

Adapted for the screen by writer John Ridley and Shame director Steve McQueen from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the harrowing story of Northup — a free man — being kidnapped and sold into slavery on Louisiana cotton plantations, where he remained without rescue for over a decade.

Since its November release, the film has become unanimously beloved amongst both audiences and critics, which seemed surprising at first.

12 Years a Slave resembles the kind of movie we aren’t supposed to fall for anymore: the super-serious, big-issue, self-consciously humanitarian Oscar bait Hollywood epic. Lee Daniels’ The Butler or The Iron Lady were recent examples — other star-studded historical dramas that did good business, yes, but met with mostly middling reviews. Everybody ends up seeing these movies, but hardly anyone really loves or hates them; they are specifically engineered to trigger a sterile sense of vague appreciation rather than any kind of lasting human impact.

12 Years a Slave, however, is different. It doesn’t use its subject matter as a ploy for dramatic weight, and it doesn’t rely on an attention to period detail as a substitution for authenticity or a simulation of immersion.

It’s a film that feels more nuanced and more vital, and ends up being a different — and more successful - kind of movie. It’s a human one.

A lot of this can be attributed to McQueen’s direction — he knows exactly how to make the institutionalized horror of slavery feel real again, freeing it from the staid reportage of the history books.

He builds a beautiful mid-19th century Louisiana and makes you look at all of the nightmarish brutality that occurred in its fields. And sometimes he makes you look long and hard — there are several moments in the film where McQueen holds the camera over a disturbing visual for so long it’s as though he’s forcing you to feel how wrong it is.

In an interview, McQueen cited the painter Francisco Goya and his aesthetically exquisite renderings of horrific events as an influence for this kind of juxtaposition, and the reference certainly rings true throughout the film.

If Hollywood must continue as it has for decades to pump out historical dramas every winter for the sole purpose of winning awards, here’s hoping they will at least attempt what 12 Years a Slave excels at: being more than an empty textbook.

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