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Steve McQueen’s Truth and Beauty

By Rob Nelson

It was a very pleasant morning. The fields along the river were covered with verdure, far in advance of what I had been accustomed to see at that season of the year. The sun shone out warmly; the birds were singing in the trees. The happy birds—I envied them.
—Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853)

Eight weeks since its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave—based on the 1853 memoir of African-American freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup—has garnered the sort of rapturous reviews that would seem to augur well for its reputation as a modern classic.

Filing from Telluride, Variety’s Peter Debruge was moved to observe that 12 Years a Slave reasserts “cinema’s place as the ultimate human-rights medium.” In The New Yorker, David Denby deemed it “easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery.” Speaking recently on Boston’s NPR affiliate WBUR, Grantland’s Wesley Morris called the film the “beginning of a kind of corrective” to commercial cinema’s general avoidance of the horrors of slavery.

Still, befitting the African-British McQueen’s own celebrated view of cinema as a conduit for debate, not all of the film’s notices have been entirely positive. Writing in Slant, Ed Gonzalez argues that McQueen’s fine-art pretenses” favor the “fastidiously composed image over human emotion.” Similarly, the Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek finds 12 Years a Slave a “pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie” that “stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling.”

“The common denominator in these largely negative reviews is the critics’ belief that the sumptuous image-making of McQueen—acclaimed for his gallery art as well as his trio of feature films (including Hunger and Shame)—operates at cross purposes with the subject’s inherent demand for “human emotion” and “raw feeling.” In other words, for some, 12 Years a Slave is too lovely for its ugly topic.

Ironically, the film’s few dismissive reviews actually come closer than its many platitudinous raves to illuminating McQueen’s particular accomplishment. Even aside from the matter of its stylistic and tonal fidelity to Northup’s prose, wherein the beauty of nature—sun shining and birds singing—appears as a blunt counterpoint to human cruelty and suffering, 12 Years a Slave justifies its radiant images by way of aesthetic and philosophical provocation, the sort upon which this artist has staked his career. Indeed, one has the sense that McQueen, for whom a film is “someone’s view of an incident, an advanced starting point” for discussion, determined to elicit these responses precisely.

Among the questions that McQueen seems to ask in 12 Years a Slave: Doesn’t commercial art by its very nature put an ornate frame around whatever it observes? What does it mean to say that the subject of slavery defies the sort of representation that invites a wide audience? Why shouldn’t the “fastidiously composed image” be used to help reveal messy truths?

Such metatextual inquiries are nothing new for McQueen, whose debut feature Hunger (2008) dared to decorate the self-imposed famish of imprisoned Irish nationalist Bobby Sands, and whose Shame (2011) draped sex addiction in swanky garb. So, too, his gallery art—showcased in Schaulager and the Laurenz Foundation’s handsome volume Steve McQueen: Works (1993–2012)—approaches a variety of difficult subjects with intense formal control and aesthetic beauty.

And yet McQueen’s work displays an equal commitment to simple observation, to bearing witness. Apart from the miraculously transcendent performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as field slave Patsey, what distinguishes 12 Years a Slave from much contemporary cinema is its refusal to sensationalize dramatic events, to shape them in a way that gives the appearance of order. Many of the film’s most harrowing events are captured in long takes that, despite their radiance, allow the viewer no distraction and no means of escape.

Like Hunger, 12 Years a Slave is an aptly piercing look at human pain; for McQueen, slavery can’t be reconciled, only confronted in the most immediate and immersive manner. As he tells Graham Fuller in the current issue of Film Comment: “When people talk about slavery, they don’t change anything. When you visualize something, it does something extra to it. That for me was the sole purpose of making the movie.”

Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Solomon Northup ( Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave

Photo: Jaap Buitendijk. ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

Photo: Francois Duhamel. ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, 2008

Photo: IFC Films

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, 2013

Photo Jaap Buitendijk. ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.