12 Years A Slave” is that Rare Thing, A Serious Film.

12 Years A Slave.

12 Years A Slave.

In 1967, the now leg­endary Stax Records sent its mod­est ros­tra of fledg­ling stars on a minor tour of Britain and France. It was a sensation.

Otis Red­ding, Sam and Dave, Book­er T and the MGs and co couldn’t believe it. Audi­ences in Britain were respond­ing to them as if they were the Rolling Stones. Actu­al­ly, most of the Stones were there in the audi­ence, and they were as blown away by what they were hear­ing as every­body else.

The legendary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

The leg­endary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

But what real­ly got them, was dri­ving around Eng­land on the mod­est Tour bus that Stax had orga­nized for them, they’d occa­sion­al­ly stop off at some sleepy town at the back end of beyond in rur­al Eng­land, get out the bus, and go into a shop! In the front door! And there, they’d be served their stale sand­wich­es and fizzy pop, as if this was the most nor­mal thing in the world.

It wasn’t. In those days, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, black peo­ple were expect­ed to refrain from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing polite soci­ety by remov­ing them­selves from every cor­ner of it. Being treat­ed in Eng­land and France like nor­mal human beings, indeed, like stars, was a com­plete rev­e­la­tion for them all. (Actu­al­ly, it kind of ruined them. But that’s anoth­er story.)

That was 1967. Less the 50 years ago.

No won­der Oba­ma took that self­ie at Mandela’s funer­al. Even he must occa­sion­al have to pinch him­self. Imag­ine, bare­ly a gen­er­a­tion after that, there’s a black man in the White house.

The book that it was based on.

The book that it was based on.

Slav­ery is to race what Hiroshi­ma is to the atom­ic bomb. It’s its nec­es­sary con­se­quence. And togeth­er with Hiroshi­ma and the Holo­caust, slav­ery is one of the three colos­sal, unfath­omable ques­tions marks that punc­tu­ate mod­ern his­to­ry. Any film that tries to tack­le it has a hun­dred and one ways of get­ting it hor­ri­bly wrong.

Look at Schindler’s List. By focus­ing on the one good Nazi, Spiel­berg was able to cloak the holo­caust with a begin­ning, mid­dle and end, and there­by turn in into A N Oth­er Hol­ly­wood film. Which is unforgivable.

Remark­ably, 12 Years A Slave gets every­thing absolute­ly right. It’s helped by the nature of its sto­ry. Solomon is an edu­cat­ed, afflu­ent, artis­tic man liv­ing a priv­i­leged life. He is in oth­er words what we all aspire to be. So when he’s kid­napped and sold into slav­ery, our sym­pa­thy for him is immediate.

If on the oth­er hand you were to tell a sto­ry of some­one who was already a slave, there’s the dan­ger of see­ing them, how­ev­er unin­ten­tion­al­ly, as the Oth­er. As one of them. Can any­one imag­ine Spar­ta­cus play­ing the vio­lin in evening wear? By begin­ning in this way, you nec­es­sar­i­ly feel for him and his predica­ment in a way that you mightn’t have done had they approached the top­ic in a dif­fer­ent way.

The fact that he is a clas­si­cal­ly trained musi­cian could have encour­aged the film mak­ers to drape their film in reams of music. Their deci­sion to use music but sparse­ly through­out is again exact­ly the right one. As ever, less is more.

Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

Fass­binder and Ejio­for in 12 Years A Slave.

But at the heart of the film are the cen­tral per­for­mances. Chi­we­tel Ejio­for has been hov­er­ing on the fringes of star­dom for some time now – he was par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable in  Joss Whedon’s crim­i­nal­ly over­looked Seren­i­ty, see here . That will obvi­ous­ly change now. And Michael Fass­binder con­firms, again, why he is one of the hottest prop­er­ties any­where in the world.

And as for direc­tor Steve McQueen. As intrigu­ing as his first cou­ple of film, Hunger (’08)  and Shame (’11) were, this is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent cal­i­bre of film.

12 Years A Slave is that rare thing; mov­ing, pro­found and seri­ous. You can see they trail­er here.

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