It’s getting rarer every day to find a film that can honestly and sensitively depict a challenging story from an era of brutal inequality. Sometimes these films are bloated, ham-handed accounts that pull at viewer’s heartstrings so violently, the string itself snaps. These cloying accounts may have the best of intentions, but they rarely affect a viewer’s relationship to the historical events.
People aren’t won over by moral preachings, they’re won over by simple emotional connection.
Steve McQueen understands this at his core, and his previous films make clear that he is indeed an activist interested in understanding real life inequalities and complex psychological conditions (in Hunger and Shame, respectively).
12 Years a Slave allows McQueen to explore the concept of slavery from its foundational conflict between freedom and oppression. It’s McQueen’s first feature film in which he touches upon the struggles of his race, and rather than hitting viewers of the head with manichean values of good and evil in the form of black and white, he addresses the subject gently and allows the moral gray areas to exist -albeit uncomfortably.
12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and brought into slavery. He struggles to find someone who will hear his rights to freedom, and he slowly succumbs to the understanding of his own enslavement. His actions throughout this struggle are sound and dignified, but often elicit complex feelings in the viewer as he shifts between powerful and powerless, slave and master.
I’ve got lots more to say about this genius movie, so read on here!