Like Lincoln last year and [insert period drama here] before that, 12 Years A Slave has been an anticipated film for months and is expected to make quite a sweep come awards season. And like anyone keeping track of these things, 12 Years A Slave was on my list of films to see as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
So when I walked by Lincoln Plaza and noticed a show was starting right as I finished lunch, around 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon, I snagged a ticket and snuck into a single seat at the edge of a row near the middle.
And that’s when I discovered that going to a much-anticipated movie on a Sunday afternoon on the Upper West Side is the worst idea ever. I was easily the youngest person in the theater by 25 years, and every white-haired fogey around me felt the need to comment at every poignant moment of the film (and this is a film with a lot of those). They gasped at every injustice, as if they’d never before heard of racism or slavery. They questioned lines they couldn’t hear clearly, and conjectured the next plot point before it’d happened.
Despite the disrupting experience and the subsequent bad taste in my mouth as I left the theater, I’ve since managed to separate the audience from the film and realize, if slightly delayed, what an achievement Steve McQueen’s third feature truly is.
I could go through the list of outstanding elements – the noteworthy cast from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s career-making lead to Sarah Paulson’s uncharacteristically bitter supporting role to Brad Pitt’s meaningful if momentary cameo; the intensity and honesty with which the most harrowing scenes are depicted, McQueen’s refusal to gloss over the horrible reality impossible to ignore; the mind-boggling realization that this is a true story and this is what our forefathers actually did to their fellow man. All of these things, which you’ve read in any number of reviews, are accurate, never overstated.
What struck me most in the film, though, and what I find myself still considering as I think back on how the film impacted me, is the singularly independent feel McQueen manages to infuse into what could’ve quickly devolved into one-dimensional awards bait. Most notably, it’s in the persistence of certain scenes, certain shots that any other director would’ve been tempted to cut away from much, much sooner either to keep an audience’s attention or save them the prolonged discomfort. McQueen thumbs his nose at the very concept, lingering on Northup’s first brutal beating following his kidnapping, his near-lynching, the lashes he’s forced to inflict on a fellow slave. There isn’t much violence in the film, and yet the emphasis on these moments sends it’s message loud and clear: the brutality of life as a slave was real – and inexcusable. More than once I looked away from the screen, the scenes are so intense.
It’s a true testament of a film’s impact if you can experience it in the mess of an audience like I saw 12 Years A Slave and still find yourself moved by it. Though it’s too early to deem it an uncontested awards darling for the year, it will most certainly be a lead contender. And deservedly so.