Stranger Side of Slavery


12 Years a Slave (2013), by Steve McQueen

By Conor Plosia

Steve McQueen has been making waves in the cinematic world, and it seems 12 Years a Slave is the beginning of high tide. The film centers on a free black man in the 19th century who is deceived and sold into slavery. 12 Years is an artistic and surrealistic view of a dark period in history, and it helps bring us closer to the reality of American slavery more than film has done before.  

Solomon Northup is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a seasoned actor on the screen and the stage who pulls out a heart-wrenching performance.  Ejiofor is surrounded by a star-studded cast of longtime McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender, actor/producer Brad Pitt, rising star Benedict Cumberbatch, and the commanding Paul Dano. Also included are newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis and Lupita Nyong’o; the latter delivers a chilling performance as Patsey.  The film carries strong and memorable performances from all of the aforementioned actors (and more), and McQueen is coming into his own as a filmmaker.  12 Years will likely put him on everyone’s radar.

Solomon Northrup was a performing musician who had raised a beautiful family in Saratoga, New York. He was offered a job and traveled to Washington willingly where he was poisoned and captured. The rest of his journey is full of struggle and suffering. During the press conference following the NYFF screening, McQueen spoke about how he wanted to do a film about a slave that the audience could connect with. A free man, intelligent and personable, a character we could see ourselves in. In a present-day context, where the philosophical question of the value of American freedom is debated, 12 Years helps give us an intuitive perspective on the matter of real slavery.

Within the film, McQueen keeps us interested with magnificent visuals that keep the mind entranced throughout the story. An element of surrealism lingers in the film, and the cinematic choices of color and light certainly add to the surreal nature of the cinematography. This concept is relative to his previous work as the director of Hunger and Shame, both starring Mr. Fassbender.  The earlier films concentrate heavily on dim lighting that illuminates darker sides of the world, much like 12 Years a Slave, but in his most recent effort McQueen pushes the boundaries further while still remaining sacred to his style.

12 Years will leave you happily devastated; many of the critics in the room were speechless after it ended, some with tears of sadness, others probably with joy.  The film will be talked about for years to come as the beginning of so much not only for Steve McQueen, but for artists across the globe. It speaks intimately with its audience and refuses to hide. I think it’s safe to say the film will earn a medley of nominations throughout the award season and quite possibly a few wins as well. Throughout the country, from Hollywood to New York City, it seems 12 Years a Slave is a hit. With the critical (and, likely, financial) successes of the film, we’re sure to see more of McQueen’s craft soon.