One of my favorite things to do involves, of course, movies. Every few weeks, my movie-loving friend Ethan and I take over a couch or two in one of our houses and watch one or two movies. Of course, since we’re both massive nerds we also talk about them and overanalyze them after we watch them.
Lately, we’ve been on a recent Oscar winner kick. This weekend, we decided to follow up our recent viewing of Gravity with a viewing of this year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.
I am very, very aware of the fact that I really can’t be quiet for a long period of time unless it involves a classroom. While watching a movie at home, I will talk and rant and occasionally bring up random historical facts that only sometimes relate to the movie we happen to be watching. I’ve never been told to shut up so it’s just something I keep doing. I crack jokes and wander off for food and ramble about something I saw on tumblr.
12 Years a Slave left both Ethan and I silent. Very few films are capable of that.
What talking did occur during the film was hushed and quiet and slightly stunned. I told Ethan about the professor I had in college who told us about how appalled she was when she handled a printed guide from the height of slavery to building a sugar plantation and saw the many, many fingerprints left on its well used pages.
We talked about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson and their strange, bothersome relationship. I silently wandered about my family and the chilling thought that the slave owners we were watching in this film could easily have belonged to my genetic stock.
But mostly, for the first time in the history of our movie days, we were silent. We just watched.
It’s a massive cliché when it comes to movie reviews, but if any movie deserves the adjective it’s this one: this film is haunting.
I’m a big fan of the work of director Steve McQueen. I went and saw Shame in theaters, rebelling against every Puritan instinct to do so, and it was worth it. I watched Hunger in a dark dorm room, on the eve of my Irish Literature final, and understood at least in part what it was that motivated Bobby Sands.
Each one of those films were haunting in their own way. McQueen’s films have a way of worming into your brain. They aren’t films you watch and leave in the confines of your television or computer. You take these films with you. You remember them. You dwell on them later that night as you lie in bed.
They haunt you, these movies, and their ghost isn’t exorcised easily.
This is exactly why, when I heard that McQueen would be doing a film on slavery, I knew it would be a game changer. It most certainly is exactly that.
It is the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), adapted from his written account of the events. It’s the tale of a free black man who is tricked and sold into slavery for 12 years. During his time as a slave, he is owned by both a relatively beneficent owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then later owned by a brutal caricature of a human being (Michael Fassbender). This is a story of Solomon’s time in slavery and his eventual rescue and it is nothing short of heart wrenching.
McQueen is a careful, conscious director. Every choice he makes means something and you can be damned sure that every shot was carefully planned out in advance.
This movie makes perfect use of that careful style and will likely stand as one of the best representations of slavery ever put to film. Every actor delivers perfectly, including Lupita Nyong’o, who received a well-deserved best supporting actress Oscar for her turn as a woman under the thumb of tyrannical owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Chiwetel Ejiofor is a wonderfully talented actor and shines. This film was undoubtedly hard to film and an emotional experience and it shows in the performances.
I have never been more terrified of Michael Fassbender.
The movie also scores on the visual front. It’s a beautiful, brutal film and the lush beauty of the plantation houses in the film and the lands surrounding them only serves to put the brutality of the institution the plantation owners try so hard to exploit or justify into a clearer light.
Each character in this film, as McQueen’s films are so good at accomplishing, has a motive. They have a reason for what they do, whether it’s horrifying or not. They are people, not symbols. This is largely in part due to John Ridley’s fantastic screenplay, of course.
However, perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is something that all of McQueen’s films share: the unrelenting focus with which McQueen’s camera documents every event in the film. McQueen’s camera sees all. The viewer is permitted no break. While another filmmaker might cut away after a few seconds during a particularly brutal or dark scene, McQueen never does. We watch every second of every brutality, from whippings to hangings, and are not permitted to look away. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to watch. But it is very much necessary and even more so in this film than any other McQueen film.
The score for this film also bears mentioning as it is magnificent and never intrudes on an emotional moment. It just serves to heighten emotion and focus your senses, as a good score should.
There is much that could be said of this film, to be sure. It deserved every Oscar win. It deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it. It deserves to be watched many, many times and by a variety of people. It will undoubtedly serve as an amazing teaching tool and a reminder of why it’s so important to recognize people as people and to recognize that racism is still very much alive in American society.
McQueen’s works always expose the ugly truth about something, whether it’s Ireland’s struggles in the 20th century, sex addiction and the nature of mental illness or the horrors of slavery. McQueen’s work always teaches and never, never makes concessions for the sake of the viewer. His films don’t sugarcoat. They expose.
At the end of the film, Ethan and I sat back. We had already decided to watch Frozen after finishing the movie but we both needed a moment to talk and to process.
“I don’t know how to describe how that movie makes me feel,” said Ethan.
“Raw,” I replied. “I feel raw.”
Watching this movie is like being scrubbed raw. It’s rough. It’s hard to watch at times. But it is fantastic and it is important. It is soul-shaking. It is one of the best films I’ve ever had the privilege to watch.
Go watch it. Learn a little. Be aware. The world needs more films like this one.