TELLURIDE FILM FEST
Telluride 2013: '12 Years a Slave' is a Profound Cinematic Achievement
by Alex Billington
August 31, 2013
Now there are two iconic Steve McQueens in Hollywood history. The actor, and the director. The latest film from Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger and Shame, titled 12 Years a Slave just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and it is a profound cinematic achievement on every level. A phenomenal work that, while incredibly heavy to watch and brutally honest in its depiction of slavery, is filmmaking at its finest. More than anything, this film is one of the finest accomplishments for actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who (I must say) deserves to finally take home the Oscar for this after so many years of fine performances. What a film.
Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley, follows the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man living in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Over the course of twelve years, he is sold to different masters and attempts to contact his wife and children back home in order for them to forward his papers confirming he is a free man. The struggles that this educated, well-intentioned, good-hearted man goes through are some of the most painful put on screen. This may be one of the most accurate and brutal films about slavery ever made. It never holds back, as if McQueen wants the audience to feel responsible for all that's happening and feel the pain and guilt in order to understand.
There are scenes, master shots, where watching the camera linger on Ejiofor's face will bring tears to your eyes. The incredible depth and the earnestness behind this man, and all that he has to endure, is enough to make a grown man cry. McQueen is a master of the lingering shot, focusing the camera intently on the faces, on raw scenes of slavery brutality, and letting the audiences sit (occasionally uncomfortably) soaking up the images on screen. It's very brave filmmaking, the kind that pushes the audience to understand and accept what they're seeing even if it's despicable or just disgusting. This film is extraordinary in the way everyone involved, from the actors to producers to the crew, committed themselves to making something so powerful.
The cast in 12 Years a Slave deserves endless accolades for their extremely brave and fierce performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I have admired for years (I first interviewed him back in 2008) gives one of the finest performances of his career, one that will be remembered for many years to come. His face alone, without any dialogue, speaks so much. On the opposite side, Michael Fassbender as one of the vile plantation owners is as evil as they come, and he completely embodies his performance, acting almost reptilian. Other stand outs include Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as the slave Patsey.
I can't praise this film enough, and even though it is a very heavy, very challenging film to sit through, it's worth it. Worth it to experience this incredible cinematic creation that is not only a remarkable piece of art but also an important history lesson. It's a film where emotions are both encouraged and stifled, where the performances will leave you in awe, where you'll be left trembling at the end. From Hans Zimmer's beautiful score, to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's shots, to McQueen's direction and all of the performances within, this film is a grand achievement and should not be missed by anyone. Even if it's challenging to sit through.
Alex's Telluride Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing