Here’s what I want from a mainstream movie: a stance, an idea, something political, progressive, and topical. I’ll usually settle for less, especially if I’m laughing or if the colors and shapes are pretty. No doubt, less can be more, like it was in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, a toothless but elating experience. Ditto with regard to Zero Dark Thirty, a flawlessly crafted piece of filmmaking and exposition. I got my money’s worth during these movies and many others (recently, The Conjuring and Pacific Rim), but ultimately, I want more. The most interesting and important movies—if not necessarily the best movies (whatever “best” means)— not only become part of our popular discourse, but also reshape the systems and infrastructure through which pop culture travels. These movies are rare, and it’s our duty to champion them. It’s been two weeks since I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave, and my initial reaction holds still: I have not seen a movie that as successfully maintains a political stance and emotional coherency while using film as a medium—and, fortuitously, the movie theater as an exhibition space—to its fullest potential.
Steve McQueen, the British-born artist and filmmaker, directed 12 Years a Slave, which has a screenplay by John Ridley (U Turn, Undercover Brother). The story comes from the memoir of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in New York in 1808. Northup was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he remained for the titular twelve years.
Ridley begins his screenplay with scenes of Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a performance that is not distracting) and his family. Under McQueen’s direction, Northup is like many movie and sitcom dads: cultured, nonthreatening, warmly paternal. So mundane are his activities—running errands, going to work, putting the children to bed—that you suspect McQueen’s tactic is for us to identify with Northup so that his forthcoming enslavement feels more personal and emotionally powerful. However, what happens over the next two hours is so jarring, so extreme in content, form, and tone that any kinship the viewer had with Northup is severed. Crudely, simply, and accurately, the singular point of (dis)identification with Northrup, and the movie as a whole, becomes race. Are you black? Have you experienced the systemic racism that’s rooted in American slavery? Or have you just read about it in college? When you watch the skin being whipped off a slave’s back, do you cry openly in the theater because your blackness has forced physical violence upon you, too? Or do you cry for the fictional slave because the scene upsets you?
The bulk of the movie is episodic in form, which results in a hit parade of systematic racism that rings true historically and currently. For example, when a lynch mob stops Northup and inspects his slave credentials, we’re reminded of New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, a policy that disproportionally violates the liberty and constitutional rights of black men. Similarly, when a slave owner demands a female slave to dance for his sexual enjoyment, we’re parenthetically reminded of Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance in which she demanded that black women twerk for her enjoyment. What these moments make undeniably clear, especially in a confined, inescapable arena like a movie theater, is that American slavery produced the cultural forces that permit and celebrate Miley Cyrus and stop-and-frisk.
As McQueen proved in his previous movie Shame, he’s an indulgent filmmaker. He likes artful visual flourishes, long takes, and ambient music, all of which were grating in Shame. In 12 Years, those same techniques work to great effect. While McQueen uses flashes of violence to emphasize the physical pain of slavery, he uses long takes to drive home the psychological trauma inflicted. It’s one thing to watch a body being whipped; it’s another to watch a body hanging from a noose for 120 seconds, especially when someone is cooking in the foreground.
Importantly, 12 Years has no catharsis: there’s no freeing of slaves; there’s no Civil War; there’s no Django Unchained-style slave revolt. Even when Northup reunites with his family at the end of the film, McQueen’s tone is melancholic rather than triumphal. The film suggests (correctly) that the end of slavery is not a celebration, but rather the beginning of a problem that should have never existed. McQueen’s direction and Ridley’s script recognize correctly that this issue continues today, and the skill with which they and their actors—particularly Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o—handle the material represents the best that mainstream cinema has to offer.
Don’t hold me to this, but I don’t think I’ve seen a better, more complete movie.
Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.