12 Years a Slave: Oscar Hype?

So coming down from the Christmas and New Years rush, staring at an annoyingly unfinished Christmas special (which I am determined to call a “Christmas special” even if it’s Halloween when it comes out) so I feel like I’m entitled to a bit of a moan. However, I haven’t really seen any bad films recently. Christmas films like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas never really disappoint.

Anyway, while I wouldn’t say that this is a negative review, I’ve wanted to talk about 12 Years a Slave for a long time, but I was reminded of this film the other day, listening into a non-related review on The King’s Speech (link here for anyone interested).

I enjoyed The King’s Speech myself immensely, but I was surprised by someone saying they absolutely hated the film. Okay, it’s a YouTube comment section, I wasn’t surprised, but I was intrigued to read on. It went on about how the movie didn’t grip them, catching me when quoting other films that did “grip” the commenter, one being 12 Years a Slave.

It got me thinking about the film again, and I felt I had to talk about my thoughts on the film. Keep your shock at bay, as I tell you why I did not find 12 Years a Slave a “great” film.Unless you took a trip to Nepal to live as a mountain monk in 2013, you’ve probably at least heard of this film. The story focuses on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free African-American in mid-19th Century America. Working as a violinist, his life is taken away from him by two men who sell Northup into slavery. Unable to escape, he is forced into a life of slavery for twelve years.

The story is based on a true story, from the memoirs of Solomon Northup, and I’ve heard the praise from critics that McQueen stayed very closely to the book. The film has been said to portray slavery very accurately, and while I haven’t read the book, I did believe I was watching a movie from the period. There was a wide range of beautiful set, and I’m guessing McQueen had a lot to do with that.

Hats off to Steve McQueen (the director and not the motorcycle jumper): for someone to be directing their third feature film and get this level of praise is amazing. His other films have nothing but high acclaim, and he is the first black director to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. McQueen alone is inspirational, let alone the film. He is obviously one of the main driving forces behind 12 Years, but I think that the stylistic approach might have undermined the portrayal of how awful the conditions were for African-American slaves. Making the cinematography beautiful (and the cinematography was indeed admirable) takes away from the gritty realism you want in the film. Patsey’s scars are horrifying after the whipping scene, but the slow, long, arc shot to depict the gruesome scene distances the viewer from the events.

The actors were fantastic. There was some real driving power from people like Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy. The skill from main Chiwetel Ejiofor was also fantastic. There are many points I can applaud him for: when he realises he will probably never escape as a free man and the ending scene… I know that all of you had tears welling at the end.

For me, Michael Fassbender stole the show. Sadistically evil, he no longer keeps the slaves for money, but for sheer entertainment. You can see he is a man who has totally lost it. Epps has sunk so far into his role of the abuser, you can’t see him in another light. He takes joy in his maddening rule. I wanted to know more about Lupita Nyong’o’s character Patsey. She spends so much off the time being broken down, that I was dying to know her story. Where was her home before? Does she have family? I know that you see Solomon slowly release the ties to his old life, but I feel like Patsy should have had some more light shed on her past.

Thinking of the film now as a whole, it sounds amazing. And the film is good. It’s really good, but something makes me feel like all the awards and accolades just seem too much for this film. The cinematography didn’t reached out and grab me. If I think back to other films in 2013, Captain Phillips had an amazing scene with Tom Hanks suffering from shock. Saving Mr Banks had the father theme that you realise has been staring at you right in the face from the beginning. Gravity was almost a solo performance, and the physical and mental pressure that must have been on Sandra Bullock is remarkable.

In conclusion, when I think of 12 Years a Slave, there’s only a couple of points where I feel like there was something new or special. Should I even be bothered by that? Does that matter in the grand scheme of things, considering the delicate subject of American slavery at play? I guess my gripe is that I can see the Hollywood glitter plastered over the film. McQueen gives the audience beautiful visuals, but I feel that the realism is overrided for aesthetics. The film might carry powerful scenes, but how am I meant to believe with them when there’s such a stylised view to them? 12 Years a Slave is a very good film, but it will never stand out for me as the groundbreaking movie that the Oscars made it to be.