Ok so I had to sleep on this one. On one hand, I felt the need to truly enjoy this movie. Steve McQueen is a phenomenal filmmaker. He only has three movies under his belt, but Hunger and Shame are two very powerful works of cinema. Shame in particular has really stuck with me for a long time since I first saw it in 2011. The movie has a great cast, with Chiwetel Ejiofor (yes I had to look that one up) leading the way as Solomon Northup. I see an Oscar nomination upcoming for him. Absolutely. Though I still think DiCaprio wins it (finally) but that's just me. And the supporting cast? Terrific. You know you have something awesome when Brad Pitt has less than ten minutes of screen time in this 134 minute film, and is still memorable. Honestly a cool moment for me in this is searching the movie on IMDB and seeing everyone that I may have missed in this movie. SNL's Taran Killam is in this. I didn't even realize that. This is a result of great production design. Phenomenal production design allows these recognizable actors to be absorbed into the Antebellum south and become completely unrecognizable. Though Benedict Cumberbatch as a Southern plantation owner was still pretty obvious to me. He has a very believable Southern American accent here and is great at showing the fact that his character views slavery as a "necessary evil" and is in reality horrified by the atrocities however the Cumberbatch haters are not going to change their mind on him if they see this.
Ok so great acting, great production design. Check. You know what this movie is going to become? The movie that you watch in your junior year American history class right before Christmas break to show how provocative and evil slavery was. Seriously! That's what this movie was. It effectively (honestly over-effectively) showed just how evil and how terrible slavery is. Every few minutes we are shown another grotesque and horrifying inhumane act against these people, and it is painful to watch. McQueen does this thing constantly where he extends a shot to near-uncomfortable levels. Like a scene where Michael Fassbender's character is having sex with a very young slave girl (played by Lupita Nyong'o) and the scene just goes on and on. The purpose is obviously to show how this disgusting man owns her and there's nothing she can do to stop it, and you see the torment on her face as it occurs, but it is so horrifying to watch. And it goes on for ages. However the scene of the movie is when Northup is almost hung by Paul Dano (yep he's in this) and then when another overseer stops them and then goes to fetch Cumberbatch, Northup is left hanging there with just enough of his body on the ground to not die. As in his toes. And he stays there for hours. The scene goes on for what feels like forever as we see other slaves go on with their duties as Northup just hangs there clinging to life. They can't do anything to help him because then they will be killed in addition to Northup. One does bring him some water but that's it. Without a doubt the most moving scene of the movie, and McQueen made it all-the-more powerful by extending it as much as he did.
But let's get to the other hand. Yes this is a great period piece, but it's more about showing us how bad slavery is as opposed to following Northup and his time spent as a slave. As a result there is no character arc with Solomon Northup. Or anyone else for that matter. Sure we see Northup develop as a slave and learn to keep his mouth shut, but that's about it. For example, there is no residual effects in later scenes to the whole hung-to-within-inches-of-his-life ordeal. Or when he's finally leaving the plantation when it's brought to light that he's a free man, there's an emotional goodbye with one of the slaves (Nyong'o's character) and Northup. So wait, since when did Northup really care about this slave? Enough to warrant an emotional goodbye? I have no idea. With this crucial element missing, the appeal of this movie greatly diminishes. As in this movie doesn't really appeal to anyone except slavery buffs. I mean I consider myself a huge Civil War buff but I was slapping myself a few times in order to stay engaged. Bored. As much as I hate to use that word, I was bored at times. The movie is very self-aware, and is constantly beating you over the head reminding you that slavery is bad. While I think high school juniors need that in their American history class, does everyone? Probably not. Oh and the score! It was borderline awful! The musical swells at emotional moments were way too powerful. Just think HERE ANOTHER REMINDER THAT YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE MOVED RIGHT NOW. It was very unnecessary and added to the movie being overly self-aware.
That said, this is still a good movie. Not great, but good. If I were to become an American history teacher, I would make sure to watch this every year.Yes it is a mature movie but it is a very eye-opening movie for those who think slavery is like what's depicted in Django Unchained. Not bashing Django just saying that it's a lot more brutal than that. In the end I would recommend it, but just be ready to be educated. And if you want a chronological journey of Northup's time in slavery, don't hold your breath. It's not going to happen.
The Critique: Roots: rated R edition. A powerful piece on the evils of slavery. However, the lack of true character development keeps this movie from being great. Also if you've never heard of Roots you're wrong.
The Recommendation: beware, American history classes, this movie is coming for you. If you want to see an eye-opening slavery is bad movie, then this one is for you. If not, you will be bored out of your mind. View at you're own risk.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 7/10 Good
Oscar Talk: I see lots of nominations but not as many wins in store for this. Actor, Director, Picture, Costumes, Makeup all likely. Adoptive screenplay too. This movie will win awards as Hollywood has to be politically correct. The question is just how correct are they going to make themselves. We shall see!