I’m a little afraid of what I’m about to say. (It’s not as bad as you already might think, given that extremely leading sentence.) But I’m worried that I’m becoming too jaded. Or I’m reading too much. One of those things. Anyway, 12 Years a Slave was a beautiful, disturbing, gut-wrenching movie. And, to be completely honest, I expected it to be more so.
This movie was heavily built up to me. One person told me that I should plan not to do anything after seeing it. One headline told me that it is the best movie on slavery ever made. One article said that Lupita Nyong’o’s performance was out of this world. Maybe all of those things are true, and maybe all of those feelings were felt, but they were not felt by me to the degree that, perhaps, they were felt by others. I was affected by this movie, yes, but it was not the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. And here is why: It is art, masterful at that, but it is most certainly not entertainment.
Comparing 12 Years a Slave and the rest of the, say, Oscar frontrunners (The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Gravity, and so forth) is completely absurd to me. Yes, those movies make statements about society and make you think, but they also contain profound amounts of humor and sex and spectacle and artistry for the sake of artistry. None of those things can be said about 12 Years a Slave. The story itself is completely true, the sex is rape, the spectacle (if you can call it that) is torture, the humor is nonexistent, and the artistry is masked in the cinematography, I suppose. I can’t bring myself to root for this movie in the conventional sense because I think it is so far above those movies I previously mentioned in terms of its status. It’s not meant to win Oscars and inspire little kids to become Hollywood stars–it’s meant to change the way we think about (and hopefully stop thinking about) race.
Chiwetel Ejiofor has the calm, kind face that draws you in, but the distance of a man who’s not really actually letting you in once you’ve been drawn. And for that reason, even though the movie spans 12 years in his life, it doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. Only his face ages; his body is still lean and strong, and he is as hard a worker on his first day as a slave as he is on his last. Even though he’s playing a specific person, Solomon Northup, I saw him as a representative, an overt symbol, an almost-martyr-turned-educator. He wasn’t acting out a role so much as serving a higher purpose.
Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, played a very specific role, that of a completely twisted, perverse plantation owner with an irrationally high level of expectations for his slaves and an unhealthy obsession with Patsy (Nyong’o). Even though I still see Fassbender (hard not to, with that gorgeous red beard), I felt like he was crafting a unique, entertaining, albiet extremely despicable and evil person. Nyong’o acted her heart out, too, though she wasn’t on screen as much as I expected. She was truly the soul of this movie, if Ejiofor was the constant beating heart. Despite her youth, she conveyed a deep wisdom and understanding of her circumstances, one that most of the other women in the movie refused to see. Her strength was in her ability to appear weak, to take the truly disturbing beating from both Northup and Epps (Fassbender) that took on a new layer of meaning with each disgusting lash.
Here’s something: I thought there would be even more anguish, suffering, and horror than there was. The lashings and fights were awful, but I really thought the movie would be more violent. And less artistic, for that matter. Steve McQueen has a tendency to dwell on discomfort, but not just images of blood and guts and deprivation. He likes to linger on faces, hands, whatever is an obvious display of emotional discomfort, to make the audience squirm. It’s effective, but sometimes I felt like it was excessive for this movie. I flip flop back and forth between how “artistic” I expected this movie to be, and I think I would have felt more comfortable with it being less so. Maybe McQueen was trying to get us feel bad about enjoying the scenic beauty while people were getting tortured. I’m not sure.
I know I’m not alone in being uncomfortable with watching this movie, but I think it’s important for people to do so and wrestle with it, and think about it, and do whatever they have to do to achieve some level of peace or acceptance (or not). As I tried to watch some of the most emotional scenes in the movie with the elderly couple in front of me talking and the noise pollution from what I assume was Frozen in the theater next door, it occurred to me that not everyone expresses their discomfort silently. This is something I take for granted. Reverence for truth in fiction and in art is something I try to hold, even when I don’t understand it. I wish more people would do the same.
I’ll step off my soap box to say just a few more things. One, I want to clarify that I thought this movie was a true achievement, a work of art, and a compelling, tragic story. McQueen et al should be proud. But two, I’m still rooting for Leo. I’d watch him get high on luudes again, but I wouldn’t dare re-experience those lashings. They’re meant to be seen once and remembered forever.