12 Years a Slave is a powerful, thought provoking film with a cast of talented actors with big name recognition by an inspiring director on the cusp of being recognised as one of the best directors of the modern age. Does that make 12 Years a Slave Oscar worthy? Potentially. Does that mean that 12 Years a Slave is entertaining? Not quite. And that is the biggest problem with Steve McQueen’s first real feature film. As interesting and well acted as this film is, there just isn’t enough to keep the audience engaged for 134 minutes. There are moments where the film is brilliant but not enough.
The question of why the film isn’t as entertaining as it should be is hard to answer. Maybe it’s because the film gives away the end in the title. Throughout Solomon Northup’s, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, tenure as a slave there is the constant nagging reminder that Northup doesn’t remain that way. That doesn’t diminish his pain but the fact remains that Northup received a means of escape from the slave trade that many black people never achieved. As such, it was much easier to have sympathy for many of the other characters, such as the woman who was separated from her children.
Moreover, Solomon is smart. Much smarter than most black men would have been at that time. He could read and write and knew much about construction. Using his knowledge is in part a curse and a blessing, such as using his construction knowledge to improve the efficiency of his master’s log transportation which draws the ire of one particularly vicious foreman. But his wits keep him alive much longer than any other man. He reasons with Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, and manages to convince Epps to believe a lie. A less intelligent man wouldn’t have been afforded half the opportunities that Northup had.
For some, the film won’t need to be entertaining. The message behind the story is enough. But films can prove a point and be enjoyable. American History X does this, as does Freedom Writers. Neither one is an amazing, epic film but both manage to convey a message and engage with the viewer simultaneously. On paper, there’s no reason why 12 Years a Slave shouldn’t be able to do the same but something in the mix doesn’t fit. It isn’t as though Steve McQueen is a stranger to directing films about tough subjects in a fashion that grips tight and demands the audience watch. Shame, also starring Michael Fassbender, does so with sex addition.
Did Steve McQueen lose his cool? This was his first big movie and possibly his first victory at the Academy Awards. Instead of going big, McQueen effectively went home. Personally, I feel as though McQueen held back. Possibly, he was afraid that he might harm the source material but it seemed as though the movie could have been directed by anyone. There is little experimentation with the structure and form of film that McQueen used in his early work. This was McQueen’s opportunity to set himself apart from the tense mass of directors in Hollywood and he chose to take a back seat.
Case in point: one of the most thought-provoking moments for me came at the end of the film when it was revealed that, because black men couldn’t be called as a witness in trials, Northup’s kidnappers go unpunished. And that was simply words on a screen. That one line did more to make me sit up and go ‘wow’, than all the whipping in the entire film. One could argue that years of television and games have desensitised me to violence but the similar explanation is that McQueen doesn’t use his skills adequately. What we are left with is a film with a story and a message but no oomph.
Strangely, 12 Years a Slave holds a lot in common with another recent film about slavery, Django Unchained. Of course, 12 Years a Slave approaches the history and culture much more seriously but it is hard to argue that Django Unchained isn’t more fun to watch and displays much more of the director’s flair. It is unfair to compare McQueen to an established director such as Quentin Tarantino but McQueen could learn much from him. In both films, a black man is separated from his wife/family and must fight to be reunited with her/them. In Django Unchained, Jamie Fox’s Django is freed very early and exacts his own vengeance on his wife’s kidnappers. In 12 Years a Slave, Northup spends a dozen years in slavery before he successfully finds a white man who agrees to take his letter back to Northup’s hometown, and even when he is free, he’s completely unable to bring his kidnappers to justice. The conclusion is that real life is boring.
Though the film isn’t great, it could still win big at the Oscars because it tells a story while addressing a tough subject. Entertainment is not the main concern of the Academy Award members. 12 Years a Slave wasn’t so dull that I felt compelled to leave in the middle of the showing but it wasn’t so great that I would like to watch it again any time soon. This film didn’t do much terribly wrong but it didn’t get anything wonderfully right either. And that is why I don’t think 12 Years a Slave should win this year. Steve McQueen can do better than this. Let him come back again and win big on a movie that deserves the acclaim, not with a film I’ll barely remember one year from now.