12 YEARS A SLAVE (R) Although it was released theatrically a few months ago, director Steve McQueen's third feature, 12 Years a Slave, is still playing in town and is one of 2013's finest movies. It's already garnered plenty of critical and award-show accolades and is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It's undoubtedly McQueen's biggest production to date and hence his most mainstream movie, though it is a difficult, sometimes punishing emotional experience. There has never been a movie focusing on slavery in America quite like this. Quentin Tarantino's exuberant anti-historical Western Django Unchained (which I favorably reviewed) was released in late 2012 and re-imagined the torturous, brutal reality of slavery in the South as a rollicking, blood-saturated neo-spaghetti Western. It was fabulous, fun and gleefully profane. It was also bizarrely moral at its core, but in comparison to 12 Years a Slave, it's nothing more than a cartoon. McQueen's movie may have the slick veneer of a major Hollywood prestige production, but its artistry, intelligence and striking cinematic style aggressively uphold the promise of his earlier features, particularly his astonishing debut movie, Hunger.
12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley (Three Kings, Red Tails), is based on fact and adapted from the memoir Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853 from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana. Northrup's horrifying tale was originally brought to the screen in 1984 by filmmaker Gordon Parks as Solomon Northup's Journey, which aired on the PBS program American Playhouse. That earlier screen adaptation is worthwhile, but McQueen and Ridley give new life and urgency to this story. It's nothing short of magnificent.
One of the most distinctive aspects of McQueen's cinematic approach is his ability to plunge us viscerally into the world of his characters. He is a brilliant visual artist, and there are several images in this movie—a camera furtively pushing through a tangle of cotton; a long take of Northup (played by the magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging by his neck, his feet desperately trying to gain traction in a slop of mud; a body drifting out to nowhere in a slave ship's wake; the desecration of flesh upon a slave's back—that are haunting and will stay with you long after leaving the theater.
Appropriately enough, this is not an easy movie to sit through. But it is always dramatically enthralling and powerful. It might just be a masterpiece.