12 Years a Slave – Understated to a T

There are two types of movies in some people’s eyes – Oscar contenders and everything else – which makes differentiating between the two groups easy. Oscar movies are worthy, moving, insightful and important. Everything else is . . . less-so. When playing by these rules, 12 Years a Slave seems like perfect Oscar-bait, but I’d like to think Steve McQueen, the film’s director, wasn’t so cynical.

The thing is, 12 Years a Slave isn’t the movie I expected at all. I’d anticipated, and kind of wanted, a film about slavery to be loud and forceful in its messages, to be a damnation of such a heinous disregard of human rights. But, McQueen avoids this sense of urgency in favour of something far more sedate. The film meanders through Solomon Northup’s tale and takes it’s time to instil an air of spiritualistic reflection.

Much has been said about McQueen’s unfaltering eye when it comes to violence and, like many others, I found it shocking; unbearably so, in some instances. But, for some reason, it never made me feel angry and I never felt the urge to fight back  . . . unless Northup wanted to.  

In fact, the film builds a remarkable connection to its lead character. Northup is a good man, that much is true, but is he a great one? It’s remarkable that he lived to tell the tale but he wasn’t much of a fighter, he never wreaked holy vengeance on his captors, he just survived.

But whether he was a great man or not, this is Northup’s story and McQueen makes sure it stays that way. His camera remains distant, yet ever-watching, and it spends just as much time skirting nearby lakes as it does focused in on bloodied backs.

So, in the end, 12 Years a Slave isn’t a film that demands your attention, instead, it’s a film that merely suggests it may be worthy of it.


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