Seeping through an otherwise general consensus of acclaim is how director Steve McQueen had made 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slavery memoir, too “Steve McQueen”: Northup’s fact-based journey as a free black man from Saratoga, New York who is kidnapped and sold to various Louisiana plantations, is too lush and calibrated, showcasing the sensibilities of the art gallery personality behind it. Mark Harris writes that McQueen is a “Kubrickian control freak,” whose “camera never catches anything by accident; he doesn’t leave room for surprise.” Adam Nayman argues that some of the film’s disturbing images are displays of McQueen’s “artistic exhibitionism…[conflating] the agony of the character with the bravery of the man unflinching enough to put it onscreen.” Dana Stevens calls McQueen out on “lily gilding” when the story requires “minimal directorial underlying.” And on his podcast, author Bret Easton Ellis sees 12 Years a Slave as “over-calculated as it is powerful,” the “rigorous formalism” resulting in an important film that nevertheless feels “rigged.”
But the overt aestheticism befits a film where artisanship is a motif: with music (instrumentation, dancing, singing), doll-making, writing, and carpentry, McQueen observes how craftsmanship functions in an environment engendering creativity vs. a lifeless, inhumane mass production machine of automatic protocol, where the artisan is denied an identity and applause. When Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) carves the names of his wife and two children on the fiddle his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), has gifted him for his engineering ingenuity, procreative lifelines and artistic livelihoods converge. But with lifelines broken and personal expression muted, what’s the point of creating? Or existing? (The same question is essential to the Coen brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis). At his lowest ebb, when Solomon has nearly surrendered to the given persona of an illiterate slave named “Platt,” he destroys his instrument.