The one film I absolutely had to see this year. The one film I’d been hearing the most Oscar-worthy buzz. The one film to actually seemingly live up to said buzz. 12 Years A Slave lives up to every heavyweight standard it puts itself against, and quite possibly the most powerful type of subject matter that has ever been documented, fictionalized or just simply told. A monuments task burdens the film in telling this story as brutally and truthfully as possible no matter how uncomfortable it becomes, and it becomes very uncomfortable, and even question-provoking. I asked myself why am I watching this film, honestly I can get through the content and depiction of slavery pretty well, but still, why subject myself to two hours of one of the darkest and despicable eras of the history of our culture. Fictionalized or not it’s downright sickening seeing how things once were for black men and women in the United States and worldwide. It’s not an enjoyable experience in the sense we normally get from watching films, I mean it’s incredibly done in the filmic sense, but the content, you get it. I realize for me why I was watching it, moreso than “Hey, I want to watch every Oscar nominee film every year,” is that it’s often easy, especially as a privileged white male, to forget the insane depths that humanity can sink to and how black people were treated, even pretty recently, and often still are today. It’s a stark reminder and necessary evil in putting this history to the forefront, creating conversations and dialogue about the position of slavery, no matter how painful or brutally it might seem, realism must trump all, especially in this area. So, I’m grateful to the film for that, among many reasons.
Hey, so let’s stop with the “Evan learning lessons” segment and actually talk about the film itself. Might as well just start gushing about Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose name I can hardly spell let alone say aloud, because I’m probably gonna be doing that a lot. Like, I mean, I’ve seen him in a bunch of other things before and always quite enjoyed him in everything he did, but this blew the doors off his previous career with a gatling gun. It’s almost kind of hard to fathom how good he is, and how he was able to pull basically every scene off when it must’ve been so emotionally painful, let alone physically. It’s so great too because Ejiofor really hasn’t had a starring role, or been the main guy, always some supporting character, but here it’s all him and my god it’s a treat to watch. I haven’t been blown away by a performance this good since Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, I know that’s pretty much recent, but it takes a lot to actually bowl me over. Joaquin Phoenix should’ve won the Oscar that year and Ejiofor should as well, granted we’re still early in the season, but it’s hard to beat. But, really who cares about awards, they’re dumb anyways, and Phoenix losing didn’t make his performance any less great, and neither would it this one.
The other thing that struck me to be absolutely perfect was the music. And of course it was done by Hans Zimmer, and I felt like an idiot just finding it out once the credits rolled. It was mastery to follow along with everything else in the film, and touched every corner of the film perfectly. It reminded me quite a bit of Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood (probably my favourite score of all time) in its haunting. It wouldn’t really seem the place for an almost “creepy” sound, that’s the wrong word, more unnerving, adding to the uneasiness of the whole film. Often it would always just be lurking in the background and slowly creep louder until it crawled up your skin and just made you even more uncomfortable. Beautiful work.
For a Steve McQueen directed period film about slavery the cast was relatively well-known and recognizable. That’s probably my only gripe with the film is that often I’d see a Paul Giamatti or Brad Pitt pop up and it’d take me completely out of the film, not that they’re not great actors, but their presence alone in this heavy film just takes you out of it. I would’ve loved to have seen Ejiofor with a bunch of no name actors to fully get the desired effect of realism and originality. Again it’s great with Ejiofor in that he’s a relatively good well-known actor, but not so much that he’s bee typecast or that you associate him with one role or character. And knowing Brad Pitt was in this just made me continually be waiting around until he showed up, for what is really just a cameo. Benedict Cumberbatch is in this as well, and he actually straddles the line pretty well of increasingly well-known actor now, but he was pretty perfect in his part, so I guess it can be done. Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Michael K. Williams show up, which is again an odd assortment of character actors that generally quite work, but there’s still that reticence from all the other roles I’ve seen them in that often nags me. Also, I know this is a Steve McQueen film, so Michael Fassbender is contractually obligated to show up (or something) like that, and that’s all well and good, I’m quite a big fan of his, but his portrayal of his slave master seemed out of touch with the tone of the film. Not only was he used quite heavily but he was played as this cartoony villain with weird ticks and actions more suited to the more comic Django Unchained slavery telling than this. This is still just a minor quibble though.
I actually can’t wait until I get to see the film again. It’s almost an insanely weird thing given the subject matter and such, but it executed everything so well that I want to be engulfed in it all over again, no matter the negativity. I’m thankful that this film exists and that everyone involved created in as seemingly accurately as possible, no matter the pain of the content. It’s tough, but essential viewing curated by McQueen’s superb direction and Ejiofor’s devastatingly perfect performance.