Walking out of the cinema after watching 12 years a slave is an almost absurd experience, in my case the festivities of Carnival in Freiburg disagreed so strongly with the incomprehensibility I was left with, a small void so hard to explain but so characteristic of incredible storytelling.
At the moment you leave the cinema, you are still captive to all you witnessed, you are not walking the streets home, you are recounting and wallowing. It’s the kind of feeling that makes you want to dissect the world, to find out what pushed your feelings so far, but also a feeling that leaves you still, something that kept the entire audience seated throughout the entire credits, motionless and without a sound.
This is the experience you are paying for when you watch 12 years a slave, a few months after the Toronto International Film Festival, already an award winner and undoubtedly capable of sweeping away any and every cynical reviewer it meets. I personally avoided the film at first due to being tragically misinformed, entirely based upon the number of star actors it fielded I shied away, the list was huge and surely no film with a budget that big would retain poise in favour of drama and expense. but then I’m an idiot, my €7 bought me a touching experience and it bought me acting to such a persistently high degree, the likes of which I have not seen for a long time. As usual, Steve McQueen confidently fields long exposing shots during intense moments, exemplified by the movements of the camera, as it watches, magnifying every second, stretching time until the viewer is ready to break, at which point the camera humbly turns away, this is an intense film and often the camera is not in the face of the action, but the face of the characters, we are more than just witnesses and these moments make the film.
I mentioned briefly the quality of acting in 12 years a slave, well it’s worth elaborating a little, firstly I couldn’t have doubted for a moment that Fassbender would be anything less than incredible and that is the case, his deluded self righteous character abuses and controls through violence, he himself being pushed further by his cold wife. Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, with quite small roles, still have importance, whilst Benedict stands in a moral grey area, kind, affectionate yet “still a slaver” the audience finds him to be the best of the worst, ultimately Brad is the hope that white people can see black people as more than just property throughout the film, these characters give the audience a measure of morality, and they execute their roles very well. But newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is the true hero on the scenes, previously unknown, she is asked to beg for death, be silent in resignation, fearful, angry and content, such extremes are asked of her yet her acting has stunned many. I have saved Chiwetel Ejiofor for last, Chiwetel plays Northup, the main character, he deserves the most attention from this entire film, his acting carries the story, every hurdle thrown at him, every moment as it plays out, the strain of the emotional weight this character holds, and how well it is played is what makes this film a success, I don’t think i’ve ever seen him act so well, the experiences of a character such as Solomon Northup cannot be easy to internalise.
To continue with personal commendations, The music and sounds of 12 years a slave is a hidden trump card, for me the sounds of crying that extended from one scene onto the next, and all the implicit danger that came with such, is a good example of extending the emotional turbulence of one scene as it becomes unbearable in the next. Songs and rhythm play their part, from the slaves singing at funerals to overseers singing infuriatingly racist songs as the slaves work, in all stages, sound binds the movie together as is dealt with masterfully, at no point for example, is Solomons masterful violin playing ever emotionally charged, it digresses or it is violently interrupted. So then who better than Hanz Zimmer, a brilliant composer, to bring evocative music into the film, his recent works are often compared and found to be similar, at this I do not disagree, however the variance in pitch, the soft cues and small changes, turn a familiar composition, into a fitting display, of all those who argue of the composition’s similarities, not one argues against their emotional power.
Steve McQueen says this film is about “love” the never ending hope of an enslaved man, the trials he faces and the dangers of the world around him, in this way the film is framed perfectly “I don’t want to survive, I want to live” turns into “I survive” trust becomes fear and sometimes all that is left of fighting spirit, is floating downstream in a bodybag. This story and progression of hope and hopelessness is fundamental to our experiences of the world, after two hours of 12 years a slave, you will be glad money can buy such profound experience thanks to the talent of everyone involved in this amazing film.
“Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost. “Tell no one who I really am” if I want to survive. I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”