12 Years A Slave

I really didn’t want 12 Years A Slave (2013, Steve McQueen) to be everything we’ve seen before from the black slave story. The premise of a free man being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South, only to be freed again twelve years later intrigued me. I was pleased to see this genre potentially move away from the ruthless, visceral depictions of the brutal reality of slavery into an exploration of the political implications and struggles encountered between the Northern and Southern states over the subject. This is territory I hoped 12 Years A Slave would be moving into.

Sadly, it was not to be. As a massive fan of Steven McQueen (Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011)) I was saddened to slowly realise that this film would amount to barely more than two hours of human misery, with some added gore and predictable characters. It was almost tiresome to once again be presented with the same gruesome whipping scenes that anyone who has seen Roots (1977) witnessed over almost 40 years ago on our screens! I feel like slavery stories should have surpassed the 'shock value' segment of their depiction, and whilst it is undeniable that these atrocities need to be addressed on screen to put the issues of the story into context, one can’t help but feel that in 2014 they are a bit gratuitous.

This does not, however, take away from the beauty of the film. In a recent interview Steve McQueen was asked why he presents such horror under such a beautiful guise, to which he replied “that is life”. And it is true, the Louisiana landscape is breathtakingly gorgeous as it is, and when portrayed through the artistic lens of McQueen some scenes appear as though oil paint on canvas. McQueen does not let the charm of the setting linger for long however and constantly contrasts it with details of the casual brutality of the slave existence, such as a hung man struggling in the forefront of a shot as children frolic in the picturesque fields behind. The disparity is unnerving and serves to convey an underlying sense of discomfort throughout the film, cleverly allowing us to engage a mutual state of nervousness alongside the protagonists under the cruel whip of slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). 

Aesthetically pleasing though it may be, it was not enough to distract me from the feeling that we have seen this all before and it is a tired strand of the otherwise largely unexplored territory of the stories of the 19th and 20th century slave trade.