There are great films and then, there are important films. Technically great films serve as a blueprint for Hollywood movie magic, while the important ones resonate in our collective consciousness for generations to come. Director Steve McQueen's latest film 12 Years A Slave, does both and is easily one of the best films of 2013.
First things first. 12 Years A Slave may be a great achievement in the pantheons of cinema...but that doesn't mean it's an enjoyable movie. Based on a true story, McQueen's film is devoid of the glossy eyed sentimentality that permeates most historical biopics. 12 Years A Slave doesn't paint the antebellum South in simple shades of black and white or good and evil. Like real life, the film is swathed in complicated strokes of grey. Dark and muddled, but grey nonetheless. It would be fair to say that 95% of all characters depicted in this film are utterly despicable, but their reasoning and motivation for their actions, as vile and misguided as they may be with our 21st century hindsight, while not justified, are at least partially explained. This helps portray the film's many antagonists as human beings (albeit, extremely repulsive and ignorant) and not the cartoonish villains we've all seen before. In short, there is not an once of glamor or pageantry inside this film. 12 Years A Slave explores a painful chapter of American history rife with racism and bigotry and holds a mirror to our present "culture wars" and the seemingly never ending war with ignorance we wage as a society. This film does not glaze things over, instead it wallows in slavery's festering wound.
Shame wasn't bleak enough, then you'll be astonished at the levels of woe and sorrow 12 Years A Slave reaches throughout it's duration. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in the New York who is tricked and kidnapped to the South. He is forced to assume the identity of a runaway slave and sold off to a plantation where he begins a decade plus struggle to maintain his sanity/soul. Everyone in the film's all star cast is phenomenal. Most play horrible, horrible people, but do a damn fine job in the process. Really, if I wanted to highlight every fine performance I would end up copy and pasting the IMDB cast list. I'll just say that Paul Dano proves he's one of today's best character actors and Michael Fassbender is simply frightening in this film. The acting is amazing, the cinematography and costumes/set design make the film feel like a documentary at times, it feels so painfully authentic you might want to jump through the screen and kick start the Civil War yourself.
I really can't say enough good things about this film. 12 Years A Slave is a beautiful and twisted movie that should be seen by as many people as possible. It shows how far we've come as a society and reminds us how much more work there is to be done. When the black coat of justice swoops in during the film's gut wrenching conclusion, you can almost hear the generations of souls ruined by the wrong side of history rejoicing. Powerful stuff and one of the best films of this, or any year.