In a way, this makes 12 Years a Slave (a more calculated stab at Western prestige) his most honest work to date. It's a biopic, and resultantly suffers a twee, hagiographic rendering of real, complex people, but its narrative and structure are more sincere in interpretation and emotional drive than McQueen's earlier works, having heart where previously there was only self-satisfaction.
This is likely because the subject, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African American who was enticed by a job offer and resultantly kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, had a heartbreaking and unbelievable story to tell with his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave.
A violinist with a wife and two children, Northup is presented as the most likable, honourable man alive, treating everyone with openness and honesty, even when thrust into a horrific scenario, chained and beaten by slave traders. During the titular 12 years, he's mostly a passive spectator to the nightmare unfolding around him, defined only by his extensive literacy and education, which is something he can't tell his various slave owners (Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender), lest he wind up dead.
For the first hour, McQueen details, with the heaviest of hands, the endless brutality and degradation of Northup and his fellow captives. They're whipped, murdered for trying to prevent rape and even forced to stand nude in a showroom while Paul Giamatti attempts to sell them, asserting strength of body and consistent health as marketable features. Anytime the bleakness and sadism start to dissipate, like when Ford (Cumberbatch), Solomon's first slave owner, demonstrates some measure of humanity, another sensationalized, melodramatic situation, such as Paul Dano's constant verbal and physical humiliation, arises, reaffirming the obvious, indisputable message that slavery is immoral.
Though McQueen revels in cruelty, detailing whipping sessions reminiscent of the gore in The Passion of the Christ and featuring an extended shot of Solomon hanging from a tree, bouncing around on his tiptoes trying to keep from choking to death, Hans Zimmer's score services the themes and tone well. When not using subdued sounds to detract from the overwhelmingly blatant emotional manipulation of the imagery and overwrought, single-minded characterizations, he distorts string instruments — Solomon plays the violin, after all — to exacerbate the horror, forcing the viewing experience outside of a familiar comfort zone.
Similarly, beneath the hyperbolized evil of Northup's final slave owner, Edwin Epps (Fassbender), and his myopic, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson), there's a mostly unexplored world of self-loathing and contradiction. Though Epps is a religious man — one that compares his slaves to baboons — he regularly rapes the hardworking, exceedingly innocent Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, who steals the show with an emotionally raw and disturbingly candid performance), rewarding her efforts and virtue with his hypocrisy, imperfections and overall fear of confronting the self.
However, these hints at greater complexity and less morally unambiguous territory are fleeting and seemingly accidental. Obviously, the knowledge that these events actually occurred adds emotional gravity to the onslaught of human exploitation and inhumanity, but the fact that everyone's moral compass and characterization are so broadly sketched, dumped easily into blanket categories of good or bad (based almost entirely on skin colour, save Brad Pitt), means there's a weird disconnect to it all. Despite Ejiofor's best attempts to bring a quiet, persisting spirit to his unambiguous cipher of a character, the lack of specificity, idiosyncrasy or ambivalence in him, and even those around him (who make more of an emotional impact on the story), gives 12 Years a Slave a sour aftertaste, having a perspective and purpose that no one would dispute, but going about it with excess contrivance and guileless emotional manipulation.
Although, contrary to the cold pretention of Hunger and Shame, Slave's problem, save the occasionally transparent extended shot that doesn't match the tone or pace of the film, is one of emotional reasoning. The feelings driving the Sisyphean reiteration of status quo politics are well intentioned and certainly not anything to be scoffed at, but they're too solipsistic and adolescent to say anything other than the obvious. It's like going on an emotional rant about the evils of disease to a room full of people afflicted with various illnesses; it's a nice sentiment, but it's sort of pointless and indulgent.