I have a confession to make: I was underwhelmed by 12 Years A Slave.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is extremely well made. It’s beautifully shot, the acting is impeccable, and I would go as far as to say that Steve McQueen’s latest may just be the best, most accomplished slave narrative on film. My problem with it is that I was entirely bowled over by his earlier two works, Hunger and Shame. Especially the former of these took me completely by surprise, its style amplifying its story to an almost unbearable extent, and Shame, while perhaps not being quite as immediately striking (no shit mandalas in this one, for one), was similarly effective. 12 Years A Slave deals with what I’d consider a historically more major issue, but the film didn’t surprise me. In fact, it felt weirdly predictable.
Not every film has to be surprising, and I can’t think of anything that 12 Years A Slave does wrong, but I came out of the film thinking that I’d basically seen a more cinematic, nearly perfectly executed version of the early episodes of Roots. There’s absolutely room for such a film, but McQueen being the director made me expect something, well, more, or perhaps rather something different. I expected something more unique – and I want to stress that this is my problem more than the film’s. However, I came away thinking that McQueen could have done more with what’s unique about the story he’s working with.
The big difference to other slave narratives is that the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, was born free in the USA and abducted into slavery. This is touched on in 12 Years A Slave: Northup, as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, holds himself differently from his fellow slaves, he sees himself as separate from them for a long time. His situation, from his perspective, is immediately wrong to him in ways that the other slaves’ situation might not be in his eyes. This is alluded to occasionally throughout the film – but it is of much less interest to the film McQueen has made than the shared reality of what being a slave must have been like. There is clearly a purpose in depicting this universal reality, but I couldn’t help wanting more of what made Northup’s story different as much as what made it universal.
Does 12 Years A Slave deserve the accolades it gets? Absolutely. It is, as I have mentioned, a beautifully made, engaging film. It just isn’t the surprising, unique work that I expected from McQueen.