As the follow-up to his critically splashy, and very different, Shame, director McQueen continues to show his capability for exposing the human condition, no matter how unpleasant. His skill at allowing the characters to just be, rather than forcing their villainy, took both self-control and an eye for how to make it truly upsetting.
The first half of this film will have you gritting your teeth and angry with humanity, and not a little embarrassed for our history. By the second half, much like was true for Solomon Northup, it all feels like a new normal, if still frustrating, which makes it all the more disturbing. Perhaps, though, that is more due to the reality that we know he survives to write his memoirs of the experience. There is risk for those around him, but while he is humiliated, tortured, and demeaned, he does not die.
Ejiofor (Dancing on the Edge) was a great choice to recreate Northup’s character. He is an amazing actor and one that too many people have missed. His is a subtle and powerful performance of an educated man put in an impossible position from which he works to both survive and extricate himself. The result is a testament to limits of human strength and fortitude in the face of despair. Flowery language, but you really can’t overstate those facts.
In addition to Ejiofor, Nyong’o in her first role, makes an incredible impression as a young slave woman. Despite never really getting to know much about her, other than her own struggles with her will to survive, we connect with her. It is an equally powerful performance to Ejiofor, and she will certainly be getting new roles based on its success.
As the primary slave owners, Cumberbatch (August: Osage County), Fassbender (Prometheus), and Paulson (Mud) produce real human beings with reprehensible world views. This was a delicate line to play, but these are not people attempting to perpetrate evil, though they were, they were living their lives the way they thought was appropriate, though it wasn’t. McQueen manages to help them ride that line beautifully, and makes no excuses for their thoughts or actions.
If there was any casting errors, it was Pitt (World War Z) and Dano (Ruby Sparks) who stood out as wrong. Dano played his typical, slimy, psychopath well, but he felt forced. Pitt, also, felt out of the period, though I can see why he wanted to be part of the production his studio was fronting. I think, for both men, it was their vocal quality; in both cases their speech patterns were too modern sounding and clashed with the rest of the production. In neither case did it ruin the film, but in an otherwise seamless world, they stood out in a bad way.
I would have added a final epitaph to the historical text at the end: slavery is still rife in the world today. Though I know it would have carried a different message and branched from Northup’s biography, I don’t think Northup would have been upset with the reminder given his complete story.
As I was watching, I also couldn’t help thinking that 12 Years would make a fascinating double-feature with Django Unchained which, in many ways, manages to make the horror more real and also, thanks to the fantasy it is, the ending far more emotionally satisfying. While I’m unaware of Tarantino’s inspiration for his script, there are a number of similarities in the stories as well. Some of that is the reality of history, but some is an interesting mirror.
And finally, though I will likely get nailed for saying so, this film should be required viewing for Phil Robertson and his blind supporters… maybe he’d start to understand the uproar he caused and some of the people he insulted. Nah, I don’t think it would either, but I live in hope.