The mark of a quality filmmaker is one who does not sugar coat or romanticize the truth – even if it is a brutal truth. Steve McQueen is a quality filmmaker.
I’m a sucker for historical movies and a great cast, so of course I had to see 12 Years a Slavedespite that fact that I knew it would hard to watch. But with the star power of popular actors like Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, one would think such celebrity would outshine the film and the purpose of the film. It does not. Actors who wield considerable celebrity outside of this film, for the most part, only hold cameos in 12 Years a Slave. This movie isn’t about them, and McQueen is keen to not let us forget that. 12 Years a Slave is Solomon Northup’s story; the story of pre-Civil War American slavery .
What I find commendable about McQueen as a filmmaker is that he does not shy away from the harsh and the brutal. For example, there were several scenes in which the audience was made to bear witness to violence and brutality – extended shots that make the audience writhe with discomfort in their seats for minutes on end. A small, small, negligible price to pay given the actual truth of history. Obviously McQueen uses this technique on purpose, and to have the power to impact an audience in such a way is remarkable.
Unlike other movies depicting the American South pre or post Civil War, 12 Years a Slave does not romanticize or make plantation-living white characters sympathetic. Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Master Ford, shows slight signs of humanity in his gift of the violin, as well as his saving Solomon from the noose. But in the end, he’s just another Southern plantation owner who does not possess enough courage or morality to give up his slaves and see what income he might earn without them. Ford pities Solomon, but he fears for himself more - and that is the key difference in plantation masters & the families who might treat slaves “better” than other slave owners. Solomon even says himself of Ford that he is a good man given the circumstances. Eliza, a woman who has had her children ripped from her, rejects this notion. He is still a slaver – and that’s all that matters.
If Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t win every award there is this season, then there is something truly wrong with “Hollywood” (okay, yes, there’s enough wrong with it already, but there is some good, right?) Steve McQueen is an obvious win for Best Director during awards season, as well as Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o for depicting the tormented Patsey. However, one must keep in mind that a film like this isn’t about getting awards and fame. The purpose is to serve as a memorial; a reminder of a shared history no matter how dark.
If you have not yet seen the 12 Years a Slave, but want to and are hesitant because of the subject matter – I say go. Yes, it’s hard to watch. But as with all atrocities throughout history, there must always be those who bear witness, who remember, and who memorialize so that no suffering or sacrifice was ever in vain.