Steven McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” is a stunner. Twitter lit up on fire after Friday’s world premiere and newspapers around the world are touting its Oscar Best Picture chances. But is the movie too good for Oscar voters and mainstream viewers? Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s more surreal take on slavery in “Django Unchained,” which, perhaps, made it easier to digest, “12 Years A Slave” presents an unrelenting nightmare of subjugation, torture and suffering. Don’t get me wrong: I think it deserves all the hype it’s getting. But McQueen, for the most part, avoids the tear-jerking appeal of a “Schindler’s List”–which the movie is now being compared to–and goes straight for gut-wrenching horrors in long static takes than can feel like an eternity.
Even though it’s been more than 35 years since 1977’s “Roots” brought an (accessibly) unflinching portrait of slavery to the masses on television, I’m still not sure mainstream moviegoers or Oscar voters are ready for this kind of thing. But I’d like to be proven wrong.
One of the things that interests me most about the film is what McQueen was able to get away with aesthetically in a film that’s being marketed as this year’s Oscar front-runner. Hans Zimmer’s dissonant score–filled with resonant bellowing horns–is as experimental as it is effective, and editor Joe Walker’s crosscutting, cross-fading, and flashbacks create an enveloping curious temporality that seems more at home within the avant-garde than a Hollywood vehicle. If McQueen can get away with all these daring stylistic decisions–not to mention all those intense scenes of sadness and madness–then the Studio System must have more guts than I thought.