12 Years a Slave: Steve McQueen’s Masterpiece of Dark and Light of the Human Heart

Posted: October 28, 2013 in Movies


The Director, Steve McQueen, loves to revel in tableaux vivants.  12 Years a Slave, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup a freeman kidnapped into slavery in  ante-bellum  Louisiana for the years of the title, is McQueen’s masterpiece.

Everything is shackled to a true story told with an unflinching reality about one man’s perseverance and triumph from brutality and slavery.  McQueen’s greatest tableaux vivant has Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor giving the performance of a lifetime) lynched, his feet barely touching the earth, straining for hours to stay erect and alive, all while normal plantation life continues on in the background unmindful of his situation.  The movie screen has never seen anything so raw and honest.  12 Years a Slave is the hard but necessary watch every one must absorb into their psyche to keep the memory of evil from morphing into nostalgic racial revisionism.  

Ejiofor is McQueen’s mirror that shows how slavery debases and twists everything it touches.  McQueen doesn’t strive to make Ejiofor a martyr, just a survivor, a reflection of the millions brutalized.  Ejiofor’s performance displays a fierce intelligence and resolve that McQueen contrasts with Ejiofor’s soft angelic facial features to make him the perfect emotional ground for this story of refinement debased and soul triumphant. 

One of the neater details has McQueen foreshadowing the end of plantation slavery by showing the main house in its whitewash shabbiness— the wanton disrepair of its chips, rot and facade in need of new varnish and repainting, unmindful of the encroach of locusts, moths, spiders and nature itself trying to claim it back.

Contrast 12 Years a Slave with last year’s pop revisionist Western, Django Unchained that also pretends to stare in the darkness of the peculiar institution and it is obvious what a fraud that Tarantino movie is.  Every scene in Slave pulsates with a sense of terror and a scourging of the heart while Unchained hipster facade revises nothing but genre conventions. 

12 Years a Slave gets an A from me.  














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