Night & Day — “12 Years A Slave” is a low-budget independent picture with a grand-scale feel that managed to get made in this era of overblown comic book fantasies. Production costs were reported to be around $20-million. It tells a true story, but it doesn’t tell it as well as it should.
In Saratoga Springs, there is an historical marker celebrating a native son that reads: SOLOMON NORTHUP Born 1808 A Free Man, Lured From Saratoga, Kidnapped & Sold Into Slavery, 1841; Rescued, 1853. Author “Twelve Years A Slave” City Of Saratoga Springs 1999.
Unfortunately, the motion picture version of Northup’s ordeal as a slave feels like a road marker. It’s certainly filled with harrowing moments, and it has two great performances, but the film lacks genuine emotional depth. You do care about what you see, but the caring lacks the passion necessary to allow the movie to be called great.
Yes, this story of a free black man, a popular violinist in New York state, makes you uncomfortable and does rip at your emotions, but that reaction is not the result of strong dialogue or a story that flows freely. It’s the result of the brutality that is displayed on screen.
British director Steve McQueen, a visual pop artist by training, wants you to feel every crack of the slave owner’s whip (skin literally explodes). He wants you to know disgust at the depiction of a hanging as the black victim’s legs shake and shake and shake. He wants you to hate the cruel language that is shouted at slaves. He wants you to loathe Michael Fassbender’s vicious plantation owner as he rapes one of the black women he “owns.”
What McQueen wants is for you to completely, and without equivocation, despise slavery. But what McQueen doesn’t seem to have recognized is that the great majority of people who are going to see his film already think of slavery as one of the worst manifestations of human behavior. What he needed to do was tell a better story, one that was handed to him on a silver platter by Northup’s memoir.