Steve McQueen’s unflinching, almost surreal look at the evils of slavery inevitably pulls us flush up against today. You can change a lot of things about yourself if you’re a black man. You can be a well-dressed educated family man. You can even be a millionaire or a film director or a famous actor. But the color of your skin remains the same. On some streets in America, in some eyes, that’s what very nearly defines you.
In his third collaboration with Michael Fassbender, after the triumphs of Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen once again takes his film in his own direction, following no preset formula, no well-traveled path. 12 Years a Slave is in no way Hollywood’s typical rendition of slavery. It is not told from the point of view of the white men in power, nor is it told from a white director’s point of view. There is no magical imaginary savior who rides in with a gun to slay the perpetrators, thereby absolving our collective cultural heritage of guilt in these crimes against humanity, or what Spike Lee has called his holocaust.