Gone With The Wind is the most popular film of all time still to this day if you talk about adjusted dollars. The Birth of a Nation was the most popular film of all time for a considerable time prior to that. Both films could be said to have a benign view of slavery and white supremacy, although it would be easy to use much stronger language than that. In most circles, both films have been considerably discredited due to this myopic view. Both films almost completely ignore or disregard the incredible cruelty of using human beings as a commodity for commerce. Even that doesn’t begin to address the evil. Slavery continues to subjugate and demean up to 30,000,000 people worldwide to this very day, but it was sanctioned by law in much of the United States until after the Civil War. The horror, indignity and monstrous unfairness of it all cannot be overstated. Those involved in the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War were driven by a fanatical and fervent desire to expose the abominable hypocrisy that was prevalent. A small core of free men and women of all races risked their lives to fight the abomination.
12 Years a Slave was a book that was written as a true account of the blind evil of the time. It is now a movie by young director Steve McQueen (that’s his real name; he is obviously not the dead actor). In Saratoga Springs, a young highly regarded musician has a beautiful family and home. His name is Solomon Northup, and he has a good life. He is intelligent, friendly and eager to make the most of his talents. He is persuaded to assist two entrepreneurs with a venture and travel to Washington, D.C. After much success and celebration he wakes up to find himself in chains, and so begins the 12 years. He is transported on a slave ship and changes hands among owners over those 12 years. He is, after all, property. He is now part of a “peculiar institution”.
The cast is uniformly excellent whether playing inherent evil or suppressed anger. Some of the blatant villains are played by Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Garret Dillahunt and Michael Fassbender. The trading in and cruel subjugation of slaves is ingrained in the DNA of many of these characters. Fassbender (Edwin Epps) is a plantation owner who eventually has the biggest impact on Northup’s life. He is a complex character that is never less than vile but often conflicted by guilt and apathy. It is a role that will give Fassbender a clear chance to win a best supporting actor nomination.
William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is another “owner” of Northup but is also a Baptist preacher. His clear conflict with the hypocrisy of his situation is far more evident. He participates in a system he has a clear distaste for but still feels unable to change. Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) is a mistress and de facto wife of another plantation owner which allows her to distance herself from the beatings and brutality in her own past. Brad Pitt, one of the producers of the film, plays an abolitionist carpenter from Canada working on the Louisiana plantation. Samuel Bass (Pitt) expresses the fear he feels. He speaks his mind and aids Northrup, but knows full well it is a dangerous game.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) has always displayed exceptional brilliance as an actor over the last decade, but the real breakout is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) as a radiant yet tortured slave.
It may be taken as a criticism to say the film directed in McQueen’s increasingly admirable style is austere and dark, but it is not. It is not a criticism but praise. The vision is clear, concise and commendable. There is great balance and humanity as it navigates through the 12 years. The cruelty is displayed as honestly as possible. All the participants are human beings with clear weaknesses, but we never shrink from their humanity. They are ensnared in a system that they may accept but mostly do not fully understand. The use of human beings as property continues today but not in such a barbaric and sanctioned form. It is a part of the history of the world throughout the ages. It is easily comparable to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany or cultures worldwide that still openly trade humans as property in one form or another. It is easy to understand the nearly insane fanatical battles waged by abolitionists such as John Brown over the ages. They could not reconcile a belief in God with a tolerance of a perversion of all that is good. For someone like John Brown, it was a holy war in the name of God to fight slavers with the last drop of the blood of his family.
12 Years a Slave only hints at the resistance to slavery, instead focusing on a nonchalant complicity in the horror. Eventually Northup is freed and gets to write his remarkable book which eventually leads to this even more remarkable movie. Last year, two pretty good films (Django Unchained, Lincoln) attempted to deal with an unvarnished look at this subject. 12 Years a Slave must now be considered the definitive work.
12 Years a Slave is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 29 mbps. This Fox Blu-ray does a tremendous job of conveying the extraordinary amount of detail director Steve McQueen and his team lavished on this film. It’s there in the close-ups of sweat, scars, and welts that are rendered with painful precision. It’s also there in some of the objectively beautiful panoramic shots of the 19th century South.
This is only McQueen’s third feature film after previously making his mark in the art world. As a result, much of 12 Years a Slave has a painterly composition that this disc helps bring to life. The image is often surprisingly bright and vibrant, with the color green, in particular, getting a chance to shine. Black levels during darker moments are oppressively deep. (Especially during the scene when Epps takes Solomon for a walk/interrogation in the middle of the night.) That does mean shadow separation gets a bit murky a few times. Still, I enjoyed the overall roughness and texture offered during these darkened interior scenes. McQueen made a beautiful looking film that contrasts with the unfathomably ugly humanity on display. This Blu-ray captures McQueen’s vision and helps sell that cruel irony.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is outstanding. Much of the film takes places outdoors, and the surround speakers provide a dynamic array of background noises that supplement the action without being distracting. In fact, the only instance where the background noise is noticeable is when we hear the swelling sound of cicadas while Solomon is hanging from a tree, and everyone else goes about their business. Some of the more effective sounds in this track are the surprising ones. For example, I expected the blows from Solomon’s first brutal beating to sound harsh. (These sound effects are confined to the front speakers, even though it must’ve been tempting to amp them up with some sub activity.) However, I was surprised to be even more horrified by the jarring sound of Solomon discovering his chains a few minutes earlier. In keeping with the film’s observational tone, Hans Zimmer’s score is tastefully deployed and never overwhelms the action on screen. Still, the track’s musical potential can be heard during an emotional rendition of “Roll Jordan Roll” by Solomon and some of his fellow slaves. Dialogue comes through clearly to the point that even some of the film’s thicker Southern accents can be deciphered. In short, this track subtly yet definitely immerses you in Solomon’s world.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
A Historical Portrait: (41:21) This is a thoughtful and creative way to do a behind-the-scenes documentary. We get comments from cast and crew as Ejiofor reads excerpts from Northrup’s book. We also get a few historians who offer perspective and praise Northrup’s writing and photographic memory. Highly recommended. Presented in two parts with a Play All option.
The Team: (7:43) A look at the folks who helped recreate the film’s time period, including the production design, makeup, and costume design teams. McQueen also pops up to say he really wanted to create a safe, caring environment on the set, which seems particularly important for this film.
The Score: (3:55) Hans Zimmer’s terrific work — highlighted by the haunting “Solomon” theme — is more conspicuous in this mini-doc than it was during the film. Zimmer talks about admiring McQueen’s previous film (Shame) and wanting to work with the director. The composer also says he would’ve utilized strings in this score even if Solomon Northrup weren’t a violinist.
This Blu-ray was released two days after 12 Years a Slave picked up Best Picture at the Academy Awards. (John Ridley’s script and Nyong’o also earned trophies.)
Even if the movie had been completely shut out during the Oscars, it deserves to be seen for its unprecedented portrayal of slavery on the big screen. McQueen’s camera often hangs back and lingers on the way life simply was during this ugly period in history, rather than going in for dramatic close-ups or attention-getting cuts. None of us who are alive today experienced Solomon Northrup’s particular brand of hell. But by focusing on his story — a free man whose liberty was snatched away — the film slyly puts us in his horrified mindset. This may be an account of one man’s experience, but — as McQueen says in one of the featurettes — 12 Years a Slave is an American story.
Parts of this review — including the “Final Thoughts” — were written by John Ceballos.