Two things: I am not a big fan of Steve McQueen (director, not long deceased movie star, he was alright). ‘Shame’ was just a horrible, soulless film – my personal opinion – that was trying too hard to be clever. Secondly; actors must absolutely love him. Even though I did not enjoy ‘Shame’, the acting was outstanding and the same can be said of ’12 Years A Slave’. Everybody in the film is good. Is the film good? Yes. Is it great? I don’t believe so. Here is why.
I will watch Chiwetel Ejiofor in any film. He is a fantastic actor, brilliant in every role I have ever seen him play. As the lead in ’12 Years…’ he is very good, given the direction the script and story took. Having not read the book, it is difficult to know how close to the source material the film is. Having said that, I felt the film lacked emotional focus in a way that another ‘true’ story – ‘Roots’ – on the same subject covered nearly four decades ago. As much as, if you did not already know, you feel some indignation for his predicament (spoiler alert) having being pulled from his comfortable life as a free, family man and cast into slavery, I am not sure that the name of Solomon Northrup will resonate for this generation of black people and others who see this film, in the same way as Kunta Kinte does for those of my generation.
The characters of Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender as the brutal, God-fearing, Edwin Epps, dominate the second half of the film. Even Mistress Epps, played by Sarah Paulson, is a more interesting character, fiercely jealous and condescending of the ‘help’ and especially Patsey, whom her awful husband takes a shine to.
The film is good and looks wonderful, as you would expect. McQueen is to be commended for bringing to light a little known facet of the slave trade. It would have been even more interesting had he been able to find a British based story, considering he is, after all, a British director. The story of Northrup is not, as shown, exclusive to him and his treatment and that of others who suffered the same such fate, though abhorrent, is well document in both film, word, and documentary.
In terms of subject matter, casting a magnifying glass on a particular black experience, this is, unfortunately, in my opinion, an uninspired choice of black history. The name of Solomon Northrup is not one that will go down in cinematic folklore, even though his story was worth telling, he had already told it.