Of all the movies released this year, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was the most memorable and resonant, not just as a corrective to Hollywood’s dismal history of dealing with African-American history, but in approaching an emotionally complex subject with both passion and finesse.
McQueen, 44, a prize-winning British artist of Grenadian descent whose works are in many of the world’s major galleries, is no historian. At the Toronto International Film Festival, he described the 1853 Solomon Northup memoir on which his movie is based, as a “lost” book, which is inaccurate: Though Twelve Years a Slave fell into obscurity, since its republication in 1968 it’s become a staple of African-American studies. It was even made into a television movie by Shaft director Gordon Parks in 1984.
More recently, when McQueen appeared on The Colbert Report to promote the movie, he said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, cashed in on Twelve Years a Slave’s success and eclipsed it. Again, he’s wrong. Northrup’s book came a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestseller, and was dedicated to her.
What he brings to the subject is not historical sophistication but a contemporary artist’s insights about the nature of perspective. In adapting Northrup’s book, McQueen has found a frame that allows us to empathize with Northrup’s ordeal without tumbling into sensationalism. Working with John Ridley’s savvy script, McQueen made a period movie that makes few concessions to modern tastes. The dialogue is heightened and literary, consistent with the book (co-written by Northup and David Wilson, a lawyer and minor literary figure.) It is deliberately quaint.
Some contemporary critics have scoffed at the cameo by producer Brad Pitt, as the Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass, who says to Northrup: “Your story is an amazing one and in no good way.” In a 19th-century narrative, the idea of reminding the reader that this is a gripping yarn is commonplace. For modern movie viewers, it’s distancing.
But this is no accident. A lot about 12 Years a Slave is deliberately distancing. The story is structured, as McQueen has said, like Pinnochio, an evil fairy tale about a man who is transported to a world where humans treat other humans as if they were talking animals. The group portraits of slaves that mark the chapters in the movie, even the indifferent beauty of the trees and the bayou, compel us to wonder about what we’re looking at and why.
The world of contemporary art, much more than the movies, is concerned with the responsibility for looking. McQueen’s forte as a director has been to compel us to look at things we would rather avoid, staring directly at the face of suffering in, Hunger, his first feature, or humiliation, in Shame, his sex-addiction drama.
One of the deepest moments in 12 Years a Slave takes place when the generally sympathetic Mistress Ford (Liza J. Bennett) sees Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) standing in the burning sun on tiptoes with a noose around his neck. The scene is entirely silent. She glances at him, then quickly turns away.
No one really needs to be reminded that slavery, along with the attendant crimes of abduction, torture, rape and murder, was a great evil. The important question that 12 Years a Slave asks is, what are those moments in our own lives where we witness gross cruelties, and why do we choose to turn away?
Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée Two mid-career filmmaking stars of Quebec cinema made the jump to Hollywood this year with impressive results. Jean-Marc Vallée, 50, the creator of the cult hit, C.R.A.Z.Y., had already done one Engish-language film, The Young Victoria, in 2009, but his Dallas Buyers Club is a substantial breakthrough into the A-list. The movie, set in 1985, stars Mathew McConaughey as a homophobic Texan who is diagnosed with AIDS and begins to work with gay groups to help patients get medication. Jared Leto stars as a transgender woman who becomes his partner in compassionate crime. Both actors are deservedly favourites for Oscar nominations.
Villeneuve, 46, director of the Oscar-nominated Incendies, has also earned high praise for his Prisoners, a grimly serious serial-killer thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in two of the strongest performances of their careers. This year, Villeneuve completed another film, Enemy, also in English and also starring Gyllenhaal, based on the novel, The Double, by the Nobel-Prize winning Portuguese author, Jose Saramago. Both Vallée and Villeneuve have proved that the lustre of Quebec cinema travels extremely well, and talent transcends both borders and language.
Producer and financier Megan Ellison Is a producer an artist? When they make important creative decisions, yes. Megan Ellison, the 27-year-old daughter of the billionaire co-founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison, has become a key figure in making original movies by prestigious directors. Last year, her company Annapurna Pictures released Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. This year, Annapurna is behind Spike Jonze’s Her, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. This Silicone Valley approach to film financing – emphasizing originality over formula – is a key to the future of good movies, and along with the Canadian former eBay chairman, Jeff Skoll, who founded Participant Media, shows how the entrepreneurs from the new media are finding new conduits for the best of the old media.