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12 Years a Slave has all of McQueen’s effortlessly powerful visual sense, all his determination to look at ugly realities head-on. I sat down to this movie expecting to see one of the long, fixed camera-position takes, in medium- or long-shot, which McQueen has made such a brilliant signature with his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. But there isn’t one. Or not quite. We get a superbly composed, continued shot of Solomon’s wondering face after a sacrifice of fowl.|leaving the|a|using} fateful conversation with a sympathetic carpenter Bass, played by Brad Pitt, and we see hope and fear and loss register with him, along with a new realisation of all that he has endured. It is a bravura performance from Ejiofor and McQueen. But there isn’t the same icy, eerie effect; the sense of steely, refrigerated technique isn’t as prominent. There is a new passion and moral force in the film; a new tragic grandeur.
McQueen’s visual acuity and flair, and the ferocity of those images, might expose him to charges of fetishism. But this is to miss the point of what this film does. It certainly forces you to see, but in a different sense. The structure of the narrative defamiliarises the condition of slavery and the slave trade, gives it a shocking visibility. Northup is conned, captured, chained, bound in a slave ship – just as normal, but all within the borders of the US. History is happening to him and us in microcosm. Northup is an educated, refined man, a man with a wife and children, a free man; his being in slavery is a grotesque mistake, a terrible injustice. We can see it only too clearly. But McQueen is making us see the point is that they are all free – or should be. They are all dignified human beings with families. Northup’s sensational situation is only an amplification and distillation of the whole crime.
It is a triumph for everyone involved, and McQueen’s career trajectory is thrilling: early work in video art, a famous pastiche of Buster Keaton, a study of hunger strikers, an investigation of sex addiction, and now a pioneering drama about American slaves: the political prisoners of history and race. It takes the blood, sweat, tears and physicality of his former preoccupations and goes beyond: an essay in outrage and injustice, and a visualisation of an end to tyranny. It is a modern classic.
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