Film and TV

The otherwise elegant 12 Years a Slave keeps its emotional distance

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is the movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler. The true story it tells is horrifying: In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free, educated black man from Saratoga, New York, was kidnapped, sold into slavery and transported to Louisiana. His captivity lasted twelve years. Northup recounted his story in 12 Years a Slave, a piercing memoir published in 1853. The title alone is austere and direct, almost painfully elegant, and that must have been the effect McQueen was going for, too. His 12 Years a Slave is beautifully shot (by Sean Bobbitt), contrasting the all-too-visible evil of mankind with the occasional ribbon of pretty sky peeking through the Louisiana trees. The story is told with calm clarity, its pace stately and respectful in accordance with its subject matter. John Ridley's script hews closely to the language and details of Northup's book. Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti all render their services in villainous roles. It's all so perfect, so right. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings all his gifts to bear here. His subtlety is the earth-moving kind: He could probably shift a mountain just by arching an eyebrow. But aside from the nuanced lead performance — plus an oak-tree-tall supporting one by Benedict Cumberbatch and a breath of movie-star vitality from Brad Pitt in a very small role — it's a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything as dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, it comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.