Sometimes, I diagnose films with what I call “Holocaust* Movie Syndrome,” which means that they are being judged on the basis of the importance and power of their subject rather than their own merit. I call it “Holocaust Movie Syndrome” because holocaust movies are often given this treatment, receiving universal, almost unthinking praise simply for being holocaust movies. The treatment works in the opposite direction as well, with “silly” movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada/Japan 2010) dismissed as “fluff” in spite of having obvious quality. It does not mean anything in particular about the film, which may indeed deserve the praise anyway (for example, The Pianist [Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK 2002] was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, but was in any event a remarkable film that deserved that praise), but it means that much of the critical reception is rather shallow and cannot be given the weight that critical opinion usually carries.
12 Years a Slave was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, being praised mostly on the basis of its depiction of an important and emotionally powerful subject. That meant that, in spite of the immense praise it is receiving as the likely Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, I went in to this film with little idea of what to expect. In the end, it ended up a good film, if not one that deserves quite the praise being heaped on it.
The film’s tale is the powerful, riveting true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in 1841 New York who is kidnapped into slavery in the south and spends 12 years as a slave before being able to return to his family and freedom. It’s interesting and packs an emotional wallop, and director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley use the strength of the story and its characters to maximum effect.
The one problem is that the film’s greatest strength—the story—also becomes a weakness as McQueen is unable to stay focused on a single point throughout. Much of the film fits a central point about the miraculous-yet-dangerous ability of humans to hide within themselves to avoid facing what is wrong around them or even within themselves. For a film that does an awful lot right, that’s not the biggest flaw in the world, but it is enough to keep the film from being a masterpiece, or even being as good as Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013) or Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA 2013) were in its year.
McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt advance their central point with a number of interesting visual elements. Brutalities of various types—murders, beatings, etc.—are consistently happening on or just off the edge of the screen, out of focus, or in darkness that hides just how brutal they are, as the in focus characters do their best to ignore them. Those techniques make it all the more powerful when we finally do see the brutality full-force, first when Solomon himself is strung up but survives and then when he is forced to whip a fellow slave himself. They also use changes in coloring and lighting to their best effects, enhancing the terror of Solomon’s discovery that he is trapped in some bizarre sort of prison cell with low-key lighting and enhancing the relative freedom that Solomon feels in Judge Turner’s cane fields with bright, saturated colors. It’s a well-made film visually.
Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a cast that is rather uneven, but he leads it with an excellent performance. Like with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, he plays a character who generally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve and so is often limited in what he can show, though he does everything they ask perfectly well. And then, he has a few scenes where he gets to (relatively) chew the scenery, like his tearful explanation of his situation to Bass and his reunion with his family, and he is absolutely fantastic in every one of them. It’s a great performance, and one that is really marked by his restraint. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch are excellent in small roles, seeming completely natural and showing a remarkable amount of depth for what little screen time they have. However, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o are both relatively weak in their roles, sometimes coming across as though they are trying to hard or just as generally appearing unnatural.
The other role that deserves note is Brad Pitt’s performance as Bass. While he does not have much to do and does not really stand out in a good or bad way in his role, I found it rather silly to cast him in that part, immediately turning that character into a white knight who is bound to save Solomon. We’ve seen him betrayed again and again, to the point that we would be just as suspicious of Bass as he would be, but once we see that he’s Brad Pitt, we know he’s not going to sell Solomon down the river or fail. It’s nice that Pitt wanted to be in the film to lend it some star power (though since he was a producer, he already could have done that) and certainly his performance is not a problem, but I think it was a mistake to cast him in this way.
Hans Zimmer produced an excellent score that uses Solomon’s facility with a violin to full effect and perfectly enhanced every emotion the film sought to elicit. It wasn’t one of the more attention-grabbing scores one could ever hear, but it did exactly what you want of a film score.
Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a very good film that has one major flaw that keeps it from really being a masterpiece. Luckily, it does everything else about as well as you can ask, and that’s what keeps it worth watching. Further, it is of course an emotionally powerful journey that will punch you in the gut, and I’m not sure that the commoditization and dehumanization of people involved in slavery has ever been captured more strongly.
*The “holocaust” being referred to throughout is the Nazi-led holocaust from World War II. I am simply calling these films “holocaust” movies for the sake of brevity, and certainly do not mean to imply that other holocausts have not occurred, as indeed they have.