Steve McQueen’s upcoming historical drama 12 Years a Slave may be the first film to define the horrific story of slavery on the big screen while also making history itself during awards season.
Coming off screenings at film festivals in Telluride and Toronto, some of Hollywood’s most reputable reviewers are deeming it the Oscar frontrunner for best picture, comparing it to Schindler’s List and suggesting McQueen might also receive honors for best director.
If such prophecies were fulfilled, McQueen would top a remarkable year for black cinema by becoming the first black filmmaker to receive the award.
He would do so for a subject matter typically untouched by the movie business.
“12 Years a Slave bears the hallmark of being the defining film of an atrocity almost too huge to appropriately define in cinema,” Joe Neumaier, Film Editor and movie critic for the New York Daily News tells theGrio. “Other attempts have focused on elements of it, like Amistad and Glory notably…or they’ve fictionalized it like in Beloved.”
In McQueen’s version however, the eyes and ears of oppression become the narrative’s harrowing voice, a true recitation based on the autobiography of former slave Solomon Northup written in 1853.
“Our eyes into the horrors of slavery go with the character,” Neumaier explains. “Our discovery of the day to day nightmares of slavery are also his, so we really have an affinity and connection. Those earlier films don’t necessarily grab us and bring us along with it.”
The first film to unearth the ‘horror’ of an era
Though McQueen’s highly-anticipated new feature doesn’t hit theaters until October, the reaction from those who’ve seen it has been unanimously positive.
Overwhelming, impressive, devastating, dynamic, extraordinary; these are but a few words critics are offering to describe what now seems like a surefire Academy Award contender.
The movie follows Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery, as he spirals into the depths of violence, evil and bondage.
Of only a handful of films that have even addressed slavery, it will arguably be the most uncompromising.
“One reason it caused such a profound emotional reaction is because it gets under your skin, and personalizes the horror of this era,” observes Anthony Breznican, Senior Writer and Chief Oscar Correspondent for Entertainment Weekly. “Black, white, whatever your gender or ethnicity, it’s easy to identity with Solomon Northup. He’s a free man. He wasn’t born into slavery. We experience the confusion he experiences, the shock and the horror. He considers himself different than the slaves, and now we are all in his shoes and that is an important and rare thing for a film.”
At Toronto International Film Festival, Breznican remembers the audience as “speechless” with their “circuits blown” following a screening of the movie.
Theatergoers left not knowing how to react, yet paradoxically with a profound understanding of what was achieved.
From Breznican’s perspective, the lack of films dealing with this topic relates to its volatility, as well as a scarcity of personalized material.
The structure and process of enslavement may be aptly documented, but too many human faces left the Earth with no formal record of their journey.
What remain have become imagined scenarios on screen, some, Django Unchained for instance, more farfetched than others.
“Django actually pales in comparison to 12 Years a Slave,” Breznican feels. “It would be like if we didn’t have so many wonderful films about World War II and only had Inglourious Basterds.”
“Inglourious Basterds is fine because we’ve had serious looks at World War II and the Holocaust,” he continues. “It’s okay, as time goes on, to have a little fun in the context of some unspeakable human tragedy because we have taken it seriously at other times. In this case, we had Django, but we haven’t had a serious picture about slavery in a really long time.”