Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code

12 Years a Slave (2013)

When I first saw Steve McQueen’s Hunger it almost immediately became on of my favorite films of all time. A debut feature that reckons with such an immensely important and fraught period of history. That comes right up against it, cracks it open, and shows you a full view of the historical moment through the lens of a single person. It beautifully uses camera movement, intimate visuals, and didactic sound that draws you in and makes you pay attention to each tragic and gut-wrenching turn.

And somehow, 12 Years a Slave never made it to the top of my list for too many years. But here he is, McQueen doing exactly the same thing at another period of time that is illogical and brutal and almost beyond comprehension. It is an intimate, profound and uniquely horrifying portrait of a single man’s struggle to survive. This is not slavery glossed over with historical romanticism (there is only one man, really, who stands against it, in fleeting moments at the end of the film). This is the full moment of history, expressed through one man, cracked open for us to see set against the majestic landscapes that only serve to starkly contrast against the brutality of slavery. It’s a tough watch, no doubt about it. But it is incredible.

Stray Observations

  • Brilliant use of sound and silence, especially when the camera hangs there and really lets you feel it
  • The use of closeups to show the anger and hatred of man and the wide to show tragedy 
  • There’s something really disturbing about juxtaposing the beauty of the southern landscape against the horror of slavery