Review: Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave”

There’s something to be said for our society when, upon viewing a trailer for a film that deals with the topic of slavery in the United States, it is immediately dismissed as “Oscar Bait.” I myself am no stranger to jumping to that particular conclusion (sometimes faster than I thought possible). It is something that comes almost naturally. In fact, a lot of period pieces in general, of any kind, tend to bring about this response in audiences. And, upon watching the film, do not do anything to quell said response. War Films, Biopics, et cetera, all share an emotionally-stirring idiosyncrasy that just seems to scream “well that director wants an award.” In a way it has almost trivialized the events that they are covering. That is not to say that these types of films are bad films, because they aren’t—more often than not they are without a doubt what anyoone would consider a Good Film, but in such a by-the-book way that it can almost reduce the film going experience entirely. Something too wrought with swelling scores and emotive speeches breaches cliché territory, indeed, breaches “Oscar Bait” territory, and quickly. It is—and I say this only for hyperbolic purposes—almost a little insulting that studios can produce these almost manipulative and sometimes seemingly passionless films in search of a buck or perhaps an award for the mantle.

However, there are times when a period piece film comes along that makes me realize that those kinds of films do not always fall into Oscar Bait territory. Take, for example, Steve McQueen’s recent monument, 12 Years a Slave.

I wasn’t familiar with the book the film was based off, but I knew more or less what to expect with the subject matter, considering the title. However, I knew not to expect the run of the mill Civil-War-era period piece from Steve McQueen, who had demonstrated his incredibly poignant and subtle direction through his past works (Shame and Hunger), and thus I was pretty excited for the film beforehand. Taking into account the cast too, I  had a feeling that this wasn’t going to be just “another one of those.” And, lo and behold, it gloriously wasn’t.

In fact, 12 Years A Slave is potentially one of the most fulfilling, endearing, and painful films in this particular genre to watch. I say painful not in that it is bad, because it certainly is not, but in that it is agonizingly realistic. And beautifully so–disturbingly long sequences depicting the mistreatment of humans in pre-13th Amendment days so gloriously shot by McQueen’s visionary eye stirs the viewer in the most honest of ways. The performances in the film are standout, specifically in the newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who is for sure due for an award or two this season. She is electric, and the same can be said for the rest of the cast; Michael Fassbender, a McQueen favorite, shakes the screen with a terrifying portrayal of cognitive dissonance. And of course there is the star of the show, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who truly comes into his own, with longing expressions lighting up the screen every moment. Everyone else, from Benedict Cumberbatch who is very rapidly climbing his way to the top of the A List, to the classic Paul Dano, really put on their war faces for this film, and it shows. It is a perfect storm of cinematography and performance.

In sum, 12 Years A Slave, though with a mere glance at the title seems to be Oscar Bait, is most certainly not: it is honest, it is heart-throbbing, it is both a pain and a joy to watch, and it is a capital-c Classic. If no other antebellum-era picture, all must at least witness this.

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