2013, Movies

12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)

This may seem a weird thing to say but I think this is McQueen’s least difficult material to date. Obviously, slavery is a difficult subject – this is not an easy film to watch – but it is not morally difficult subject, at least for most of us. Hunger may not have been morally difficult for anyone who wasn’t British, but it was presented in a difficult – and brilliant – manner. Shame did concern morally difficult subject matter, at least for the majority of us who still wish this was the Victorian Era. But this film does not have such subject matter; it is easy for us to establish a moral position.

So hopefully you will understand me when I say that I feel like this was a safe movie for McQueen to make. I am not, for an instant, saying that it was bad, but I would say that he has entered the mainstream. In the hands of another, weaker filmmaker, this would be pure Oscar-bait. I’m glad McQueen of all people made it – I can imagine the disaster of sentimentality it would be in the hands of someone like Spielberg – but I still think it may have been slightly too easy an artistic choice for him. And I say this only because I feel like it is his weakest film, behind Hunger, on my short-list for the best film of the last decade, and Shame, on my short-list for the best film of last year, despite its flaws.

This is still a very, very good movie, it just feels like McQueen has sacrificed some of his peculiar aesthetic choices in order to get more people to see his movie. That isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but if it is part of a trend, I will be just slightly disappointed.

Anyway, the movie:

Ejiofor is as good as you’ve been told, perhaps better. This is likely the best acting performance any of us will see this year. There are a few moments when he is about as good as anyone I have ever seen at showing us his changing feelings, without saying a word. That’s a real talent, and it’s incredible to watch. The rest of the cast is also great, particularly Fassbender, who plays the hardest role. (More on that in a second.)

The film itself does not shy away from any of the harsh realities of the plantation economy, though the story itself has some peculiar turns. Had someone other than McQueen made it, I might doubt the authenticity of some of Ejiofor’s character’s luck. It is beautifully shot, as we would expect from this director.

The sound is also usually quite effective, though I did have a bit of a problem with the score at the beginning. It’s not that the score itself is bad – it’s quite interesting and the one catchy musical motif is used very sparingly – it’s just that it was too obvious in the opening third or so of the film. I stopped noticing it so much later on and I’m not sure if that’s because of the film drawing me in or because the score was more subtle in those scenes.

My one bone to pick, aside from some over-scoring, is the use of Brad Pitt. I feel that, had another, not necessarily better but at least less famous, actor played this part, it would be more authentic. Instead, Pitt gets to condemn slavery – as he no doubt would in real life, hardly a difficult task for an actor. He practically rides in on a white horse and because of who he is, you can’t help but wonder if he bought his way into the part, as he also co-produced the film. When you look at Pitt’s small role, and its few demands, and compare it to Fassbender’s, you know who made the harder – and better – artistic decision. If this is what Pitt is doing for serious work nowadays, he won’t be convincing anyone that he is a great actor. (Full disclosure, in the late ’90s and early ’00s I would have probably claimed he was such.) He is too famous at this point and the role he plays is just too safe. Better to put him in Giamatti’s role, I think.

But this is a small, small thing that really doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of an otherwise great film.


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