Steve McQueen tackles slavery in his most mainstream work yet.
Steve McQueen (USA, Special Presentation)
Friday, September 6, 6 p.m.
The Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West)
Saturday, September 7, 11:30 a.m.
Ryerson Theatre (43 Gerrard Street East)
Saturday, September 14, 9 p.m.
Visa Screening Room, Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street)
Despite its foundational status in American history, slavery has been a fairly taboo subject on film, rarely addressed outside of timid courtroom dramas like Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and ironic extravaganzas like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. That makes acclaimed British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor)—a free man taken from his home in New York in 1841 and sold into slavery—an especially important project.
Given his visceral recreation of an IRA prisoner’s hunger strike in his first film, Hunger, 12 Years a Slave promised to be a bold alternative to the likes of Amistad, but this is a departure for McQueen, despite its interest in how faux-civilized institutions bear down on the body to break an individual’s spirit. Less formally rigorous than its predecessors, the film is a straightforward and at times awkwardly expository period piece, complete with an overly stacked celebrity cast in an endless procession of glorified cameos. While this is a safer film than we might have expected, that doesn’t take away from the moments of raw force and conviction, or from Ejiofor’s powerful performance as a man forced to hide his true self to survive.