“12 Years a Slave” opens in Columbus Friday, after spending about two months picking up awards and overwhelming praise from the film festival circuit.
The film has been the subject of high praise, with a number of critics labeling it as the benchmark for films about slavery.
The movie is a dramatization of the life of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
It is British director Steve McQueen’s third feature film and is hotly touted as an early Oscar contender.
That hype complements the film’s high ambitions — McQueen said the movie aims to do more than just tell Northup’s story.
“It’s a world story because it has to do with slavery and slavery was a world industry,” McQueen said at a press conference at the London Film Festival.
But if its aim is to encompass the institution, the movie uses its 134-minute canvas poorly. Slavery is approached like a fairy-tale horror of good versus evil. It’s insular, and falls short of adequately exploring the sociology of how otherwise civilized people could rationalize such a barbaric institution.
Like “Schindler’s List,” “12 Years a Slave” is more interested in using violence to remind its audience of past horrors than exploring those horrors in a meaningful way.
The film is most interesting when it shows more nuanced characterizations of slavery’s sociology: slavemasters who treat slaves like co-workers and slaves with Stockholm syndrome who defend their masters.
But as soon as the movie comes close to examining that complexity, it quickly runs back to the isolated caricatures of a saintly Northup and his evil masters.
Most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional: sadistic slavemasters, compassionate slavemasters and scared and subservient slaves. Their psychology, however, is left almost wholly untapped except when necessary to advance Northup’s story.
The telling of Northup’s story is by far the film’s strong suit. Like any great movie, the action feels real; the careful pacing and isolation provide a tense feeling of helplessness. The fantastic acting and dialogue (albeit a little theatrical) make any confrontation between Northup and his slavemasters even more emotionally gripping.
If only taking into account the form, the movie is great, but it falters when its thin content fails to live up to its ambitions of being the definitive movie about slavery.
“12 Years a Slave” is set to open nationwide Friday.
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