Slavery is bad, you guys. Did you know that? If not, you should probably watch 12 Years a Salve. Because it’s really determined to teach you that. So determined in fact, it’s willing to forgo all subtly, all nuance and all attempts to surprise you in any way. Because it really, really, really wants you to know that slavery is bad.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northup, a husband, father and free black man in 1841 New York State. He’s tricked into a drunken night out and wakes up from his hang over in chains. He’s been kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader, Benedict Cumbabatch plays a nice owner (well, as nice as anyone who thinks they can own people can be), Michael Fassbeneder plays an evil owner, Paul Dano plays a racist prick and Brad Pitt plays a Canadian with a terrible beard. This is an amazing cast that never really amounts to what you would expect from such a pedigree.
The pacing and economy of 12 Years a Salve is surprisingly brisk. At just on two hours, it gets right to the point, with Northup tricked into slavery within about the first 10 minutes, and there he stays until a brief reprieve in the closing minutes. And I think that pace is part of the problem. While losing freedom and being forced into slavery is obviously a terrible fate for any person, it would have been nice to spend a bit more time with Northup living his life as a free man first, to make the impact of having that all taken away hit a little harder. It’s hard to miss characters, like his family, who you never got to know in the first place.
The hero is the personification of will, determination and a spirit that cannot be broken. The villains are there to be evil racists and twirl their moustaches. And Brad Pitt is there to be the token open minded, forward thinking whitey. Within seconds of each character being introduced, you’ll be able to predict exactly what their part is to play, what they’ll do and when they’ll do it, so this story can stay on the most predictable of rails at all times.
Where 12 Years a Slave is most successful though, is in its brutality. There are several physical, verbal and emotional attacks of whites against blacks that made me squirm in my chair while I watched, and that’s a good thing. Seeing these things be said and done, and the racial intolerance that motivates them, should make people feel uncomfortable in 2013.
But for all its harsh realism, it never let me forget I was watching a prestige movie. At one stage, when a slave woman is being whipped, at first I was surprised by how horrific this act seemed, based on the mists of blood that would spray into the air with each crack of leather. Then a second later, I was thinking about the amazing dental plan Fassbender’s character must have for his slaves, because the victim’s teeth were so perfectly white and straight. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what director Steve McQueen wanted me take from the scenes, but that’s what I remember.