“When 12 Years a Slave premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year [our massive collection of links to reviews coming out of TIFF and Telluride is here], you could sense a crowd divided by the intensity of what they’d seen,” writes Calum Marsh, introducing an interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor for Esquire. “On the one hand, there were walk-outs — not because the film was worth bailing on, but because its depiction of the violence and degradation of slavery is so brutal and abrasive that it can be hard to stomach watching it at all. On the other hand, there was applause and tears and a long-lasting standing ovation. People were devastated and moved by the picture, by its commitment to telling a necessary story and by the virtuosity of the filmmaking that contained it. 12 Years is the rare film to push an audience away because it does what it intends to too well. It shoves the horrors of American history in our faces so well that the only natural response is pain.”
“Whatever you’ve heard about this movie is probably accurate,” writes Steve McFarlane for the L: “it’s gorgeously shot, unbearably hard to watch, magnificently acted—a star-studded period piece with just one CGI-augmented vista, and a dominating lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Starring as Solomon Northrup, a real-life free man who was duped and kidnapped into antebellum slavery, Ejiofor displays an astonishing range of contradictory feelings as a character trapped in one of humanity’s worst waking nightmares. The expectation that Solomon will ‘wake up’—that is, that [director Steve] McQueen will jump ahead in time—figures gamely into the screenplay’s continued disposal of any glimmer of hope for the audience. Jostled from one plantation to the next (all horrifying, with varying degrees of white conscience embodied by their owners), Solomon’s dozen years in bondage have a flow that’s linear to the point of abstraction. There is no countdown to freedom, no progress bar.”
McQueen’s third feature after Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) “is as extraordinary a film as most of its reviews claim it is,” writes Glenn Kenny. “The acting and the direction are indeed remarkable, but I was also struck by John Ridley’s script, the dialogue in which very convincingly simulates mid-19th-century modes of North American speech while augmenting the already-powerful narrative with extremely trenchant philosophical and psychological observations, pronouncements, and maxims. The implications of these words, particularly within their contexts, are extraordinary, and it’s to the credit of Ridley (an extremely able writer whose prior work as I’ve experienced it has been notably smart but never achieved precisely this level of depth), McQueen and the extraordinary cast that the nuggets of disquieting added value never play as contrived or forced.”
Jason Adams at the Film Experience: “To say that Steve McQueen’s film renders the unfathomable brutality of this period in our history tangible in a way that I’ve never seen captured on-screen before is both an understatement (for one it makes the cavalier jokiness of Tarantino’s Django Unchained seem terrifically misguided, to put it nicely, in retrospect) and a bit of a side-step—it does that but it somehow, miraculously, does so through inclusivity. This is not a film that pushes you away, even as it renders you breathless by its terror.”
Jason Bailey (Flavorwire) and Clint Holloway (Indiewire) have extensive notes on the NYFF press conference:
The New York Times introduces a roundtable discussion: “On a sweltering afternoon in SoHo last month, the author and filmmaker Nelson George led a round-table discussion at the Crosby Street Hotel with Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen. Joining them to provide a wider historical and artistic context were the Columbia University professor Eric Foner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, among other books; and the artist Kara Walker, whose room-size tableaus of the Old South employing silhouettes have redefined how history and slavery are depicted in contemporary art and influenced many, including the 12 Years a Slave production team. Current civil rights issues including the New York police practice of stop and frisk, recently declared unconstitutional; sexuality and slavery; Hollywood’s version of American history; and the themes of Obama-era cinema were among the topics of the sharp but polite dialogue.”
Elvis Mitchell talks with McQueen for Interview. 12 Years a Slave screens once more at the New York Film Festival—today—before beginning its theatrical rollout on Friday.
Updates, 10/14: “12 Years a Slave is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery,” declares David Denby in the New Yorker. “It shows up the plantation scenes of Gone with the Wind for the sentimental kitsch that they are, and, intentionally or not, it’s an artist’s rebuke to Quentin Tarantino’s high-pitched, luridly extravagant Django Unchained.”
Jada Yuan talks with Ejiofor for New York, where David Edelstein writes:
I realize there’s a danger in suggesting that McQueen is guilty of overkill: that it could be taken as an attempt to say “Slavery wasn’t as torturous as all that.” The hell it wasn’t. From a political and humanist standpoint, there are plenty of reasons to champion 12 Years a Slave. In his book, Northup directly addresses an audience that (mind-bogglingly) still exists—the one that insists that many slaves were happy in the bosoms of their masters. It should shame people with Confederate flags on their walls (“It’s about states’ rights!”) or Paula Deen types who harbor nostalgia for the elegance of the antebellum South. Epps reads Scripture to his slaves and lingers on a passage calling for them to be beaten “with many stripes”—proof that the Good Book can be employed in the service of manifold Evils. The movie nails all this, and it’s smashingly effective as melodrama. But McQueen’s directorial voice—cold, stark, deterministic—keeps it from attaining the kind of grace that marks the voice of a true film artist.
12 Years is one of the films Peter Labuza and Tony Dayoub discuss in the latest Cinephiliacs podcast.
Meantime, CineAction has posted Edward Bacal’s essay (PDF) “Sharon Lockhart and Steve McQueen: Inside the Frame of Structural Film.”
Update, 10/15: “Scenes of immense cruelty and sadism are presented in long, unblinking, pitiless takes,” writes the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias, “and emotional eruptions are swallowed by an atmosphere of unyielding despair. There’s passion and drama at every turn, yet McQueen does everything he can to stay at a clinical remove until the last possible moment. His strategy isn’t to emphasize Solomon’s emotional journey, nor those of his fellow slaves, but to emphasize a plantation setting that absorbs it as readily as the oppressive heat.”
Update, 10/16: “In the end, 12 Years a Slave is the truest of horror movies,” writes Ray Pride in Newcity Film, “borne from a memoir, fictionalized, heightened and comprising a wholly necessary pageant of historical wrongs.”
Updates, 10/18: “12 Years a Slave isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States,” writes Manohla Dargis, “but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Also for the New York Times, McQueen talks us through a scene (2’07”).
“Three movies into his second career as a feature filmmaker, McQueen has leveraged his obvious skills as an installation artist into becoming the modern master of a certain kind of set piece—the literal show-stopper, in which the movie grinds to a halt to beg our applause,” writes Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot. “It’s indeed disturbing to watch Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup choking underneath the noose placed around his neck by a brutal plantation foreman (Paul Dano), but it’s also infuriating in a way that exceeds its narrative function. McQueen may intend the sight of a dangling black man as the centerpiece of his grim historical drama, but it’s actually a symbol of his artistic exhibitionism.”
Writing for Artforum, Melissa Anderson grants that “these scenes certainly stand as a corrective to the sentimentalization of the ‘peculiar institution’ found in films like Gone with the Wind (1939). But how laudable—or dubious—is this achievement?” It’s the first of many questions she raises in the paragraphs that follow. “If these rhetorical questions—my non-review of 12 Years a Slave, a film that I can neither recommend nor dismiss—serve any purpose, it is to ask whether it is even conceivable to graphically represent the unimaginable without further cheapening the lives one sets out to honor or diminishing the horrors of a monstrous epoch (a query that Claude Lanzmann answers directly, of course, by not including archival footage of concentration camps and other atrocities of the Holocaust in 1985’s Shoah).”
At arts•meme, Robert Koehler argues that McQueen “wrongly perceives the psychological and emotional underpinnings that guided the Southern slave trade.” But for Time‘s Richard Corliss, 12 Years a Slave, “for all its cool distance, remains a raw, horrifying and essential document.”
More from A.A. Dowd (AV Club, A-), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Christopher Orr (Atlantic), Vadim Rizov (Filmmaker), and Susan Wloszczyna (RogerEbert.com).
Anne Thompson talks with McQueen, Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay interviews Ridley, and Bill Desowitz meets cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.
Updates, 10/23: Scanning the critical reaction to 12 Years, Richard Brody notes that a question has been raised as to “whether the director Steve McQueen has trivialized or exploited Solomon Northup’s and other slaves’ sufferings by the very act of treating slavery as a collection of dramatic incidents no less ripe for naturalistic cinematic depiction than any novel or latter-day true-crime story…. But I’m glad that McQueen didn’t doubt the power of dramatic filmmaking when he turned his attention to 12 Years a Slave. It’s a didactic film in the very best sense of the word, even, dare I say, a Brechtian film.”
“A recent CNN poll showed that when asked about the Civil War, around 1 in 4 Americans sympathized more with the Confederacy than with the Union,” notes Peter Malamud Smith in Slate. “And 42 percent believed slavery was not the main reason the Confederacy seceded. That context gives 12 Years a Slave a moral urgency…. But there’s also a limitation built into the basic premise of 12 Years a Slave, and it stems from a limitation of American entertainment as a whole.” 12 Years‘ “narrative focus comes with a cost. What the film says about Solomon Northup is what so many American movies say about their protagonists: He was exceptional.”
“The narrative arc of the film isn’t from powerlessness to power,” writes Noah Berlatsky for the Atlantic. “It’s the reverse.” Unlike Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989) or Django Unchained, 12 Years “doesn’t present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.”
McQueen “deconstructs the fallacy of Black Respectability,” argues ReBecca Theodore-Vachon at RogerEbert.com. “Although the roots of Black respectability were well-meaning in theory, in actuality they foster a double standard for African-Americans, by selling the false premise that they live in a fair and balanced meritocracy. As demonstrated by Patsey and Solomon’s tragic narratives in 12 Years a Slave, their ‘respectable’ behavior could not absolve them from the cruelty of human bondage.”
Patrick Z. McGavin: “The movie repudiates the trash aesthetics of junk like Django Unchained or The Butler; it accurately reduces those unlearned, debased movies as minstrel acts. Using the full expressive power of the medium, drawing out light, color, tone and point of view, McQueen creates a work of terrifying urgency and anger.”
Amy Kaufman profiles Lupita Nyong’o for the Los Angeles Times: “Portraying Patsey would be a harrowing challenge for even a veteran actress—the character is raped, whipped, beaten and assaulted. But Nyong’o arrived in Louisiana last summer only weeks after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, having beat out 1,000 other actresses for the part—her first feature film role ever.”
Listening. Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner discuss 12 Years at Slate.
Update, 10/24: Annette Gordon-Reed, author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, argues in the New Yorker that, for all the questions raised about slave narratives “as items of historical evidence,” the “writing that has been done in the past sixty years on slavery is, I believe, the crown jewel of American historiography.”
Update, 10/25: “You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland, “and start demanding correctives, films that don’t glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies—serious ones—that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can’t live without the aid of white ones. McQueen and Ridley turn that dynamic inside out. Their movie presents the privilege of whiteness, the systematic abuse of its powers, and black people’s struggles to get out from beneath it. A different movie might have taken this story and turned it into a battle between Epps and the white men who feel a duty to free Northrup. That’s what we’re used to. There have been complaints that the movie is too violent, that it depicts too many lashings, too many cruelties, too much interracial abuse, that all the gashes on all the backs (what Toni Morrison poetically described as chokecherry trees) are just too much. But that’s a privileged concern…. The power of McQueen’s movie is in its declaratory style: This happened. That is all, and that is everything.”
Update, 10/26: 12 Years “is about as close to compulsory viewing as any movie can be,” writes Josef Braun. “The question, raised in some recent essays prompted by the film’s release and immediate acclaim, as to whether atrocities such as slavery or the Holocaust can or should be the subject of movies isn’t very helpful when trying to reckon with the work itself. See the film, struggle with it, admire it, if you will. Remember that Northup’s is just one story among millions. And let’s indeed celebrate the fact that the wonderful Ejiofor has finally found the breakthrough role he’s so long deserved.”
Update, 10/30: “It marks the first time in history that our entertainment industry has managed to stare directly at slavery and maintain that gaze,” writes David Simon (creator of The Wire). “Everyone who had anything to do with this film getting made—from the producers, to director Steve McQueen, and the committed, talented cast—should sleep tonight and every night knowing that for once, the escapism, bluster and simple provocation that marks a good 95 percent of our film output has been somehow flanked, and subversively so.”
Here in Keyframe, David Ehrenstein reviews Gordon Parks‘s Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984), “every bit as necessary to see as 12 Years a Slave.”
Update, 11/5: “The problem comes when we go to these movies, have a good cry, and imagine that, through some kind of Hollywood magic, they will bring about change.” While Frank Rich, writing at length about 12 Years in New York, anchors his argument in contemporary events (‘white legislators in both parties have responded to the Supreme Court’s recent castration of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 largely with apathy, not urgency’), Matt Karp, writing for Jacobin, considers 12 Years in light of other slave narratives, some canonical, some not quite there yet: “If Django Unchained, for all its provocative inversions, failed as a revolutionary document, it’s conceivable to read 12 Years a Slave as an even more profoundly pessimistic commentary on the bounds of the politically possible.”
Update, 11/7: “If the film is visually stunning, the script (by John Ridley) is less so,” finds Christopher Benfey, writing for the New York Review of Books. “And there is too much Aaron-Copland-like schmaltz in Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack (one can’t help but think that this was imposed on McQueen, who has such a good instinct for the uses of silence).” Still, the best sequences are “visually ambiguous and open-ended, presumably owing something to McQueen’s art-school background.”
Updates, 11/9: “Since Hunger, McQueen has, perhaps paradoxically, been accused of both an audience-directed sadism and inappropriately aestheticizing the suffering of his subjects,” writes Lowry Pressly in the Los Angeles Review of Books. But “in the case of Hunger the charge of aestheticization misses both the importance of Christian iconography for that film as well as the juxtaposition of that iconography to the starkly unaestheticized contests of brutality between the inmates and their jailers. In this case of McQueen’s adaptation of Northup’s harrowing narrative, the charge again begs a number of moral, historical, and aesthetic questions.” Which are then, of course, addressed.
“My reaction to 12 Years a Slave is borne, largely, by exhaustion,” writes Roxane Gay at Vulture. “I am worn out by slavery and struggle narratives. I am worn out by broken black bodies and the broken black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance. There seems to be so little room at the Hollywood table for black movies that to earn a seat, black movies have to fit a very specific narrative…. Hollywood showers these struggle narratives with the highly coveted critical acclaim. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Update, 11/10: “McQueen has had to reckon with the deep and justified distrust of Hollywood found among African Americans,” writes Paul Gilroy in the Guardian. “For fear of being disoriented by further dilution of their already beleaguered common identity, they will not countenance any outsider engaging with this storehouse of suffering in ways that do not conform to the local habits.” McQueen “has uncoupled the representation of slavery from the old sequence that runs deep into the history of American cinema and fixes Hollywood’s role not only in assembling and celebrating racial difference as entertainment but also in projecting it as a source of pleasure to audiences that remain stubbornly segregated…. The particular experience of the slaves is not posed against a universal meaning but infused with it. McQueen’s bold challenge to the continuing enslavement of people for profit allows no happy ending because slavery and unfree labor are still far from over.”
Updates, 11/16: “Could a well-intentioned film about slavery, one that tries to represent its viciousness without blinking, instead dull viewers’ concern?” asks Matthew Cheney at Press Play. “It’s a problem that 12 Years a Slave confronts through the time it spends on particular people and images, and thus the manner in which it asks us to think and feel our way through the narrative.”
In a report for Vulture on the film’s making, Bilge Ebiri notes that “believe it or not, this most exacting of directors often likes to arrive on set not knowing what, exactly, he’s going to shoot. Or how.”
Listening (28’48”). Elvis Mitchell interviews McQueen.
Updates, 11/20: “Alfre Woodard steals Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in her four minutes on screen,” writes Dan Callahan at RogerEbert.com, “just as she stole Robert Altman’s Health (1980) away from a large group of flashy and established stars, though maybe ‘steals’ is not quite the word. She brings 12 Years a Slave to a new level, something a lot more unconventionally human than what we have so far seen. As Mistress Shaw, a slave who has attained a higher status as the lover of her enslaver, Woodard has a lot to accomplish in those four minutes McQueen has allotted her. She has to offer a peculiar oasis to Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the free man who has been brutally captured and held on a nearby plantation, and she also has to make a crucial judgment on the life around her and make it seem like more than wishful thinking. Her scene is a hinge in the film.”
Lupita Nyong’o is a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show.
Update, 12/6: “Chances are Hollywood has asphyxiated the scriptwriters capable of producing both intellectually and visually dazzling films about what it means to be black.” Desiree Wariaro in the New Statesman on, among other things, watching 12 Years in Stockholm.
Updates, 12/25: 12 Years “is a very viscerally powerful film, and in some sense the historical trauma of American slavery can always use further cinematic exploration,” writes Zach Campbell. “But while I’m sympathetic, in many ways, to denunciations of 12 Years a Slave as a form of (very respectable) torture porn, I still wonder … why is it that the prism of pornography has become the only way we ever read images and narratives that depict blood and broken skin anymore?”
“Ejiofor’s performance is a master class in mortification and outrage,” writes Graham Fuller for Film Comment. “Solomon sometimes flares up, as when he strikes Tibeats and later reprimands Patsey for asking him to assist her in committing suicide, but the actor sustains this stolen man’s sense of trauma throughout. In the first of two twi