12 Years a Slave and honest cinema

Main actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s have a self- intervention and be true to ourselves for the next couple of minutes.

Honest films make people uncomfortable. We’re just not used to it.

Keep in mind this is a medium that encompasses possibility and fantasy. A world where Rachel McAdams sleeps with time travelers and Leonardo DiCarprio paints French girls is real good. With Hollywood censoring a lot of films or causing any sort of uproar when a film attempts to bring bigger themes or questions to the foreground, we’re ultimately becoming desensitized to everything. Hollywood is censoring us from things we don’t necessarily want to hear, but things we need to hear.

Then, 12 Years a Slave comes in and establishes itself as a film that’s not only thematically consistent with its director but also fits every description of what an honest film is and should be.

The story revolves around the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery. What follows is Northup’s 12 years in slavery, as he fights to stay alive to get back to his family.

12 Years a Slave automatically marks itself as quite possibly one of the most important films of the 21st century. Remember, this is a piece set in a period largely ignored by mainstream Hollywood. They’ve been scared to touch a film like this for years. In 2012, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western, buddy action, dark comedy Django Unchained used slavery as a backdrop to its narrative. This caused all sorts of backlash.

Then one year later, we see a film that revolves entirely around the concept of slavery in the hands of Steve McQueen, a director who makes a harrowing drama about the tragic life of a sex addict just two years before.

This is where we stop and ask, “What the hell happened?” We don’t want to say it too loud because we don’t want to startle Hollywood into going back on a good decision. They purposefully set themselves up for a masterpiece and they know it. About two minutes in, the film sets itself apart from all of the nominees this year. This is quite possibly going to be one of the most harrowing, unnerving, uncomfortable 138 minutes of your life, but I suppose it’s worth it for one of the best films of the year. So just get someone to hold your hand.

What stands out about Ejiofor isn’t the scenes where he fights for himself, where he stands against slave masters, or he sticks up for other slaves. It’s the scene where he accepts, even if it’s for just a second, that he’s not going to make it back home. Ejiofor handles the subtly of Northup’s emotions with such professionalism that it makes Solomon Northup’s story worth telling.

McQueen also does not hesitate with the brutality of his scenes. The camera just lingers hauntingly over the unflinchingly painful moment of this film. It cuts when it’s meant to. Music swells when it’s necessary. The movie doesn’t hide behind anything, it makes no attempt to censor itself from the audience.

McQueen also does something quite remarkable with his cast. He gives us quite the ensemble, with talents like Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano. Yet, as characters they’re never given the screen time that their celebrity status would merit in a film. It’s so anti-Hollywood, it’s beautiful.

They’re also not glamorized in any way. This is something the film does to absolute perfection, which makes it all the more uncomfortable. It truly depicts the venom of the human condition. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a film with a portrayal of evil quite like this. The film takes no qualms in showing the filth of human nature. If that’s not cinematic honesty, I don’t know what is.

12 Years a Slave not only stands as a masterpiece of 2013 but it also holds the door open for Hollywood’s potential to effectively and honestly portray significantly heavy themes in cinema. It essentially brings the question of the day into full light: how honest do we like our films?


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