There are any number of reasons for a movie to be positioned as a “must-see” experience, but fewer and further between are films that earn it. Take Gravity, the accidental movie event of 2013, which transformed a simple survival story into an astonishing 90-minute theme-park ride and reaped historic word-of-mouth for its effort. As gut-wrenching as it is, its biggest hook is the first-person awe of space travel, giving audiences an opportunity to briefly live out life-long astronautical dreams (and then to tilt those dreams forever toward nightmares). Now, just weeks later, we’re given an altogether more consequential must-see, and it will be interesting to find out if those who flocked to feel something they’ll never get to experience for real will do the same for something they’ll never have to.
Of course, box-office reception won’t have much to do with how 12 Years a Slave finds its eventual audience. The horrifying true story of a black violinist named Solomon Northup who was deceived and sold into slavery, Steve McQueen’s third film is an instantly definitive work on our national shame, destined for Oscar glory and eventually permission-slip controversy as it forces its way into American history curricula. Before long it will be the sort of must-see that borders on compulsory.
That, and much of anything you’ll read about the film, surely comes across as hyperbole, but it’s hinged on the absolute effectiveness of its approach. It’s no feat, after all, for an entertainment to elicit a simple emotional response to the topic of slavery, and in the case of white audiences it may be counterproductive: affirmation that they “understand,” and feel the proper revulsion, but free of any invitation to engage with or learn from the cultural implications.
12 Years a Slave is a watershed corrective to that, using Northup’s wrong-man tribulations as an intellectual access point to an alien culture that modern Americans—and indeed the freeborn Yankee Northup himself—can’t properly conceive of. From catastrophes to almost immeasurably small victories, we take in the lessons of the slave life, the cruelest of which are also the grandest: that the expanse of the South means a slave sent into town with a grocery list has little more chance of escape than he does while standing on his master’s porch, or that human kindnesses add up to nothing from whites willing to understand other human beings as livestock. At one point, an innocuous cut to flashback, depicting nothing more than two well-dressed black families passing each other in the street, jars you as if McQueen had cut to Sandra Bullock hurtling through space.
The filmmakers obviously value these deeper impressions, even as they hit hard at the physical and psychic carnage we’ve more effectively braced ourselves for. Still, McQueen wants us to observe more than identify, and a number of the film’s pivotal scenes play out in wrenching long takes that keep the audience at arm’s length without downplaying the horror. It’s a showy trick that eventually (and then suddenly) draws attention to itself, but there’s no denying the effect, or McQueen’s talent in general. To fault 12 Years for its supposedly cold remove is to ignore how that distance serves the film’s purpose; it’s a character study, not of one man but of an entire way of life we’re still scrubbing from our consciousness.
However impeccable its approach, 12 Years a Slave is sadly flawed in key ways. The memo about cerebral effect over heartstring-plucking seems not to have reached Hans Zimmer, whose score sighs heavily while the audience holds its breath. For a story with a particular time frame built into its name, McQueen’s elliptical telling offers too few signals to the passage of time. And though it’s filled with exceptional performances—as Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor finally seems poised for wide recognition—the final act is nearly knocked off its balance by producer/distraction Brad Pitt, turning a self-serving role into a self-defeating performance.
These things all keep 12 Years a Slave from being a perfect film, but they never threaten its importance. It’s an experience many will put off; you may not believe, here at the end, when I say that it’s surprisingly accessible for its weight. But what other movie has this much to offer us as Americans, and as Southerners? It’s taken McQueen, a Brit, to offer an honest lesson on our history and a reminder that this was not a sin built to be forgiven or forgotten. It stares exhaustively into the ideas of racism and freedom, and in the hands of the audience it deserves it will inspire discussion born of insight. It’s a gift I hope we accept.