12 Years A Slave


When I read about 12 Years a Slave I was smitten: innovative director with excellent CV, grim political subject matter, eye-catching cast, galaxy of five-star reviews from latte-sipping publications. As a man with a taste for misery, leftist politics and Michael Fassbender, it seemed we were made for each other.

But then we met. It was OK. It wasn’t a disaster. I politely winced in all the right places, felt bad at the appropriate moments, genuinely admired much of the acting. But there was no spark. We parted amicably and I trudged home, deflating like a slow puncture.

Because some films make you feel bad for not loving them.You want to love them. You should love them. Everyone else loves them. In such circumstances, when your critical faculties appear to be in conflict with the entire western world, there are only two possible conclusions: either you are a defective human being or the entire western world is wrong. While the former is a distinct possibility, it would make for a short review. So at risk of being hounded out of the hemisphere, I will attempt to explain why 12 Years a Slave is not so great.

The problems are a product of the source material – the true story of Solomon Northup. Living as a free man in New York State, Solomon is kidnapped during a visit to Washington, sold into slavery and transported to Louisiana. Stripped of his identity and leaving behind a wife and two children, he is condemned to twelve years as the labouring ‘property’ of southern plantation owners. Finally freed, his memoirs are a harrowing depiction of his experience. The book is remarkable – an invaluable document of dehumanising oppression, despair, and bravery – and without doubt an amazing story.Whether it is a story suited to film is another matter.

Because Solomon’s memoirs were always going to present a director with two big dilemmas: one practical and one moral. The clue to the practical problem is in the book’s title – how to portray twelve years prolonged suffering in just over two hours. Because if there’s one thing film tends to struggle with, it’s the passing of time. Cinema is a medium that presents us with a recognisable world of image and sound – drawing its beauty and force from its close proximity to our everyday experience of the world. But for those of us who have never woken from a prolonged coma, our experience generally doesn’t involve a fade to black followed by the words ‘ten years later’, and narrative jumps of this kind tend to dilute cinema’s powerful essence.

In 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen attempts to capture the accumulation of years through more subtle means, but the results remain unsatisfying. What we get are scenes saturated with symbolism – a vicious lashing, a smashed fiddle, an extended chant of Roll, Jordan, Roll – all of which attempt to portray the grinding effects of long-term captivity on Solomon’s character; the slow, painful mingling of his character and his fate. It is a valiant attempt to wordlessly distil a decade of pain, but by the end of the film it just doesn’t feel like twelve years have passed, and the failure is all the more frustrating because it needn’t have been an issue. By remaining faithful to the timespan of Northup’s book (most likely due to its redemptive ‘happy’ ending) the filmmakers saddled themselves with a problem they ultimately failed to solve.

Which brings us to the moral dilemma. Towards the end of his memoirs Solomon Northup reminds the reader that he has made no judgement on the practice of slavery – he has merely described events accurately so that others may reach their own conclusions. The problem with a 21st century adaptation is that modern audiences know only one conclusion is possible. There can be no nuanced response to the ethics of 12 Years a Slave, and nor should there be.

As a result many of the scenes, for all their expert acting and cinematography, are basically reducible to simple moral statements: “See how power twists the words of the bible to justify its oppression.” “See how signs of humanity in the slaves unsettled their oppressors.” “See how an obsession with money leads to heartlessness.” All of this reaches a climax with the arrival of the saviour, Brad Pitt, who appears as a lowly carpenter proclaiming the rights of man.

These are perhaps the pitfalls of making a film about something so blatantly immoral – the work has no choice but portray blatant immorality, to which an audience can only respond with a fairly abstract historical anger the blatant immorality of 19th century American slavery. McQueen could have tempered the abstraction with more explicit allusions to today’s continued slave trade, or the de-humanising effects of any economic system that prioritises profit over people (I’m looking at you global capitalism), but again his commitment to the source material makes such an approach impossible. So we end up with an expertly-made, superbly-acted, disturbing, mesmerizing, ethically impeccable history lesson.

And a good film. But not a great one.

Gareth Thornton

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