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Good movies aren’t uncommon by any means. One could argue that even great movies aren’t irregularly seen. Masterpieces, though, are a different story.
“12 Years a Slave” is a masterpiece.
The reasons behind this assuredly bold statement are in no way short or limited.
The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man with a family who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As the title suggests, Northup lived and worked as a slave without the comfort of his family for the next 12 years.
If the story alone weren’t enough to incite the interest of any casual moviegoer, then the film’s quality should.
As was mentioned earlier, movies of a higher standard aren’t so rare that the public at large is unfamiliar with them.
But those great movies are, more often than not, considered great because of very specific, sometimes widely acceptable, aspects of their creation.
For example, a great story can elevate a movie into greatness, regardless of the quality of the film’s script or acting or directing.
“Forrest Gump” is a relatively recent example of this situation. The 1994 film certainly does have an interesting story and several compelling characters but, at its core, isn’t that well-made of a movie.
“12 Years a Slave” is, though.
Everything from the film’s script to its score is of a higher quality than is standard, particularly for such a potentially exploitative period film.
British-born director Steve McQueen, whose pseudonym is already full of ambition, has taken a very touchy topic, researched it, exposed its smallest details and has still managed to make a film that takes ambition and turns it into quality storytelling.
McQueen’s use of the camera is never for flash. Every movement the camera makes seems to be full of reason and grace.
McQueen’s good choices don’t end at story selection and camera work, though.
The movie’s cast is made up of an odd-yet-perfect balance of both stars and unknowns. The odd part about this balance is that big names like Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti play characters that are only featured in about two or three scenes, while somewhat unproven actors carry the bulk on the film on their shoulders.
The only thing that I see that could possibly hold this movie back from being considered a classic is also one of the main reasons it should be considered a classic: its unabashed look at the harshness of slavery.
The film is cringe-worthy in a way that most audience members probably aren’t accustomed to. While most modern movies induce discomfort because of crass humor or shocking dialogue, “12 Years a Slave” makes its audiences shift in their seats because of its brutal honesty.
This film reminds audiences why slavery is America’s greatest shame. It’s like the most shocking textbook you’ll ever read.
I’ve never had such a difficult time balancing enjoyment than during the two-hour traffic of this film.
There were moments where the filmmaking technique was so utterly brilliant that I had no choice but to sit in my seat and smile.
Then, there would be moments where the events on screen were so horrific that I had no choice but to squint in discomfort.
And then there were the moments where a horrific scene would unfold in such a brilliantly filmed and executed way that made me feel like, at any moment, I would start to shake violently and sparks would shoot out of my head.
Although the film was certainly full of shocking sequences of violence, it was McQueen’s silent, still moments following them that were the most unnerving.
One of these moments, in particular, was one of the most reservedly powerful things I’ve seen on screen in recent memory.
After an especially violent, bleak scene, the audience is left with one of the film’s several extended stationary shots of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon.
He pants and sweats and looks around him, half expecting some sort of salvation from horrors like the one he just witnessed. As we look at the landscape of emotions on his face, he turns slowly and looks directly at us.
This seemingly fourth-wall-breaking act is uncomfortable but powerful. He looks at us knowingly, almost as if he’s fully aware that he’s in a movie.
Although he says nothing, his stare holds a weight similar to the weight of the looks our parents would give us when they were truly disappointed in us.
This look, though, isn’t one of judgment. It isn’t an accusation. It’s a plea. It’s like Solomon is asking us, the viewers, to be better people.
But that is about as political as this film gets. There’s no blatantly intentional parallels to current events.
McQueen has no interest in using history to make a point about today. He has no ulterior motive. He simply wants to tell a great story.