There has been a tendency to look at British artist Steve McQueen's third feature film as part of a "new wave" of "black" or "African-American" cinema that is dealing with the black experience in America in a much more direct way, less as genre pieces or "blaxploitation" and more as standard drama. At the same time, Mr. McQueen's film, based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a black free man in the 1840s Northern United States who is kidnapped and sold down South as a slave, is also coming in line with the Academy Awards feeding frenzy of serious prestige pictures. Either case seriously undersells the director's traditionally visceral, confrontational work as something 12 Years a Slave most definitely isn't.

     The key to the issue: many American critics have seen fit to contrast Mr. McQueen's film with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained as politically opposed takes on American slavery, when both films exist separately and stand apart in the way they handle the subject: Mr. Tarantino through the looking-glass of bastard genres, rewriting the American western history in the manner of his earlier rewrite of war movies Inglorious Basterds, Mr. McQueen from a more serious, naturalistic but no less confrontational point of view. The British director merely applies his traditionally brutal, formal approach to a more conventionally structured story arc, much more linear than either of his previous works Fear or Shame. As always, the intense commitment of his actors - from the harrowingly inhabited performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup to the star cast showing up for bit roles - isn't there to distract us from the film's story, being instead subsumed in the emotional roller coaster Mr. McQueen creates methodically.

     There is nothing merely exploitative or redundant in 12 Years a Slave, as the director's spare use of music (with Hans Zimmer's most subdued and quieter score in ages) and deliberate creation of mood through purely cinematic means conspire to weave a web of dread and claustrophobia around the viewer, who finds himself engulfed almost unwittingly into the same nightmare Northup finds himself living in for twelve years. Mr. McQueen's strict refusal to signpost or bracket its time frames, never properly assigned throughout, is deliberately disorienting, as is indeed everything else in this meticulously created film: working with his regulars, DP Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, the filmmaker creates not so much a standard narrative film as a chillingly matter-of-fact atmosphere, a background that sucks all life into it then out and prevents it from escaping anywhere else - and does so within the trappings of a problem picture, seducing its viewer much like the two slave traders seduce Northup into a false sense of security.

     On its surface yet another prestige film made by Hollywood to assuage America's historical guilty conscience, 12 Years a Slave slowly assaults its viewers beyond anything they bargained for, placing them into the exact position of a man whose only fault was having the wrong skin colour at the wrong time. Come for the penitence, leave with the guilt amplified - a bait and switch that would be almost laughable if it didn't come in the shape of such a masterfully created, smoothly layered meditation on race in America. It's Mr. McQueen's third masterpiece in a row.

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley, from the memoir by Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt (colour, widescreen)
Music: Hans Zimmer
Designer: Adam Stockhausen
Costumes: Patricia Norris
Editor: Joe Walker
Producers: Mr. Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Mr. McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas (Regency Enterprises, River Road Entertainment, Plan B Entertainment and New Regency Pictures in association with Filmfour)
USA/United Kingdom, 2013, 134 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, December 18th 2013

Winner of three 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress - Lupita Nyong'o; Best Adapted Screenplay)
Nominated for six other Academy Awards (Best Director; Best Actor - Chiwetel Ejiofor; Best Supporting Actor - Michael Fassbender; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing)


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