Widely branded as but not necessarily “essential” cinema, 12 Years a Slave is Steve McQueen’s technically adept but middling stab at illustrating the horrors of American slavery in the 19th century. Doing so via the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same title, the film chronicles Northup’s wrongful kidnapping and ensuing time as a slave juggled between several plantations, shakily steeling his resolve if only for the sake of the family he one day hopes to reunite with.
By now, we’ve assuredly familiarized ourselves with the oppressive treatment of slaves throughout the American South, at least in some capacity. It’s an important subject to address and, as such, has been acknowledged via many a history book, personal account and pop cultural medium. Fitting snugly into the latter two out of three, 12 Years a Slave frequently overcomes a hackneyed historical retread through uncomfortable territory via identifiable singularity, if nothing else.
Pairing a unique individual’s engrossing tribulations with McQueen’s flair is functional more often than not, the storytelling aspect of the film ringing the most substantial amid overwrought instances of brutality. While undeniably well-intentioned in an intentionally unflinching way, McQueen’s trademark adherence to human suffering runs its course as true-to-life begins to border on exploitative and gratuitous. Barring our expected discomfort, a relentless, almost unbearable air of hopelessness is only rendered naught by the autobiographical nature of the source material, more specifically the fact that Northup lived to tell the tale – one that warrants a happy if agreeably cloying conclusion.
Although identifiably important in a broader subjective sense, 12 Years a Slave is a basal, characteristically uncomfortable account of human inequality at its most deplorable. Benchmarked by McQueen’s prior success in accentuating the bleakest aspects of the human condition, Solomon Northup’s suffering is assured in its presentation but smothers us with a blanket of all-consuming, moreover overbearing grimness. Appropriately taxing as it all may be, 12 Years a Slave merely tells an inherently interesting tale of an individual’s admirable perseverance in the face of violent adversity, McQueen’s flourishes alternately benefiting the feature and serving as a detriment.