12 Years a Slave: Can a Movie Actually Show the Horror of Slavery?S

After Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave made its Toronto Film Festival debut last month, Vulture's Kyle Buchanan proclaimed, in a headline accompanying a gushing review, “Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave." I read that and wondered why a writer would set expectations so high for something he loved (beyond the click-bait potential of such grand pronouncements).

Instantaneous overhype facilitates disappointment; backlash follows swiftly. It seemed like a disservice, but the time between that piece and the movie’s release to the general public (which starts today, albeit in limited form) has only strengthened Buchanan’s claim. Given the rapturous critical consensus on 12 Years a Slave alone, it does seem like this movie will sweep the awards season (that is, if it isn’t the other recent film that made good on its heaping mounds of hype, Gravity). For its apparent effect on most people who've seen it and said something about it, 12 Years a Slave seemingly has the makings of a modern movie classic.

I am, however, one of the few that was spoiled by that Vulture review (as well as some in-person gushing from a friend who saw the film even before Toronto). I was ultimately disappointed by this movie. There is plenty here to admire, but I wasn’t moved in any new way as a result of this telling of Solomon Northup’s true, horrific, and insane story (born free in New York state, Northrup was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery). Rather, I was moved in the same way I always am when confronted by my country’s outrageous past.

It's not that we should stop telling these stories, especially not in a climate of cultural and historical ignorance. But no amount of telling will ever do justice to the actual atrocity of slavery. Three hours of plot-free, nonstop torture couldn't convey the hundreds of years of slavery. We don’t have the cinematic vocabulary, and if we did, it would result in a movie so unwatchable that it couldn’t speak to people in the way they need to be spoken to, anyway.

(See Goodbye Uncle Tom—an indescribably bonkers exploitation movie from 1971 that I discussed in my review of Quentin Tarantino's lighter-side-of-slavery flick Django Unchained—as an example of how nauseating extreme depictions of the antebellum slave trade can be...or actually don’t, because you probably can’t stomach it. Most people can’t.)

Granted, the compromise McQueen must make is more unflinching than most. After being kidnapped and beaten several times, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is put on display in a showroom of slaves in various states of undress, as Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) lists their special features like a car salesman. A mother and children are sold separately, much to the mother’s grief, and when the family’s cries become too much for anyone to withstand, Northup is made to play his fiddle to drown out the emotional ruckus.

When this movie did grab and shake me, it was in sporadic moments like this—or a much, much quieter one after a woman is whipped and her fellow slaves tend to her scars and sit around despondent. The scene is so thick with sadness, and that sadness is so specifically rendered on the dozen or so faces in the room, that it becomes an invitation to communal morning. This deep depiction of the emotional lives of slaves is a rare thing even in the most well-meaning of films on the subject. Because Northup has known freedom, he is often unable to maintain his patience in the face of the flagrant injustice and dehumanizing, hypocritical demands. His articulation, and occasional outbursts, achieve deeply satisfying levels of viewing catharsis.

The movie takes its subject gravely seriously, as it should. It seems to be taking its status as a movie about a grave subject very seriously as well. That's to say that the film, at 135 minutes, feels self-consciously epic. The script is riddled with declarations that are too self-important to be believable: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin.” “You let yourself be overcome by sorrow, and you will drown in it.” “Slavery is an evil that should befall none.”

Lines like these distract from the visceral nature of the atrocities. Disgusting injustices are driving this thing, between ponderous moments of downtime, and the ten-to-15-minute spaces between horrifying scenes of abuse and cruelty give 12 Years a Slave an oddly slasher-movie structure. Beatings, hangings, thrown objects, bizarre demands, life-shattering separations: The source of the content is the despicable truth, but the directorial manipulation is pure thriller. Its momentum is perverse.

12 Years a Slave is more focused and elegant movie than Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but it has the same relationship to its white actors (Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano), whom it rolls out through its final reel. Brad Pitt, who produced the film, has a late cameo. On it, he said, “It helped get the thing done… I sit in a very fortunate position where I can help push things over the edge with difficult stories, and this was one of those instances.”

Pitt’s role as a celebrity in the making of this film is similarly heroic as his character’s role in the film’s narrative. Just as a white man was needed to present (and, via his status, alter the trajectory of) a black man’s story 150 years ago, a white man is needed to help get a black man’s story told today on this scale. Modern race relations may be easier to look at, but they're still uncomfortable. For exposing the difficulty of producing important stories told by and starring black people, 12 Years a Slave is a valuable document bridging the past we'd like to forget to the present we'd like to ignore. My admiration for the film is partial, but my respect for it is whole.