Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt
In a recent interview, director Steve McQueen pointed out one of cinema’s most startling travesties: that more films had been made about Roman slavery than American. Indeed, it is a subject that has predominantly been ignored by Hollywood until very recently. Tarantino’s Django Unchained certainly captured the brutality of slavery with a visceral authenticity, but no matter how fantastic a film it was, it was one made for entertainment purposes, unconcerned with telling the human stories of the African slaves. With 12 Years, McQueen rights this cinematic wrong with a haunting masterpiece told through grand performances, startling visuals and accomplished direction.
At the heart of this tale is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York in the 1840s. Abducted and sold in to slavery, Northup faces an unthinkable existence of endless labor and beatings at the hands of his white superiors, particularly when he is brought to a cotton plantation owned by the vindictively psychotic Edwin Epps. A story comprised of such unimaginable suffering, Northup’s tale is an astonishing one that McQueen evocatively lifts directly from the pages of Solomon’s eponymously titled autobiography, which was published after his release from slavery in 1853.
Tasked with bringing Solomon to life is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose long-running career in supporting roles is turned on its head with this monumental performance. While McQueen uses his revered artistic talents to capture the visual horrors of slavery, Ejiofor captures the heart wrenching pain of Solomon’s plight with admirable subtlety. Certainly, John Ridley’s expertly written script allows for many scenes of Solomon verbally expressing his pain, but it’s the quieter moments that so painfully break your heart. A single, static shot of Solomon staring directly to camera towards the end of the film speaks with greater volume then words ever could and that’s entirely down to Ejiofor’s naturalistic performance that will no doubt secure the reputation of the British-born actor as one of contemporary cinema’s finest performers.
Vividly detailing the horror and heartbreak of a man forced in to a life of despair, McQueen continues to display his transcending talent for delving to the deep roots of his stories. 12 Years burns with a harrowing authenticity that sheds an honest light on this shamefully unexplored world. As such, McQueen regularly lets the camera linger a little longer on the imagery; unafraid to show the despicable treatment of those forced to work on the plantations. The film’s most quietly unsettling scene, unshakably etched at the forefront of your mind long after the credits have rolled, is a singular image of barbaric punishment that no person deserves; the brief glances of the other slaves as they try to ignore such a wretched act serving as a particularly poignant example of lives lived in unfathomable terror.
To have a film driven by a performance as assured as Ejiofor’s is excellent, but to have one brimming with such talent is extraordinary. As Solomon’s story leads him to Louisiana and in to contact with some of the most despicable people ever bound to the pages of history, Michael Fassbender’s malevolent slaver Epps becomes the personification of this cruel world. It’s a towering performance, so shocking in its viciousness that even when he’s not on the screen, Fassbender remains a terrifying presence. Epps is a man embittered with a glacially cold hatred towards his own slaves and prone to sudden fits of fury, which Fassbender exudes from the moment he steps forward to justify his harsh treatment of slaves through specific Bible readings.
It’s this often unspoken battle between Epps and Northup that eventually forms the beating heart of Solomon’s story. The recurring tableaux of Solomon and his fellow laborers endlessly at work in the cotton fields under the beating heat of the Louisiana sun are excruciatingly dispiriting. The broken expressions forever carved on the faces of the men and women, many torn away from the families they had, accentuates the evil that has befallen Northup and allows for McQueen’s film to reach a cinematic precipice, encompassing so much more than just Solomon’s story.
Indeed, 12 Years A Slave is a film where every story counts to piece together Solomon’s tale of hope. Every actor professionally accomplishes the task set before him or her, with standout support most notably offered by Bafta Rising Star nominee Lupita Nyong’o. Her character Patsey embodies the same strength as any man working on the plantation, making her eventual fall to despair and subsequent punishment all the more traumatic. This particular scene, shot in a single take, is unlikely to be matched by anything else on the screen this year; a truly terrifying exposition of this violent world and a master class of all the extraordinary components that have gone in to making this simply exceptional film.
As is to be expected from such an honest expose of the slave trade, 12 Years offers no answers or resolutions on the events you have just watched. It leaves you aghast with the tale you have just been told, of a country that promoted such lofty ideals of freedom while allowing such callous captivity, and frustrated at the thought that such atrocities are only now finding a voice on the big screen.