12 Years A Slave (2014) Review
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay) Solomon Northup (source material: 12 years A Slave)
Certificate: 15 Running Time: 2hr 14 Mins
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyongo’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt
Plot: Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free man from upstate New York is deceived and sold into slavery where he faces an everyday battle for survival and redemption.
The critically acclaimed, London born director, Steve McQueen has demonstrated a willingness to explore contentious and soul-destroying subject matter in his sensational yet brief directorial career to date. McQueen has delved into the polar opposites of physical affliction. His stark and disturbing portrayal of the 1981 Irish hunger strike in his feature debut Hunger (2008) magnified the moral considerations and impact of physical deprivation. In Shame (2011), the fragility of the mental and physical state was examined in a lonesome depiction of a man’s sexual addiction. Both films imprinted their unique mark but every once in a while a film comes along which challenges you to stare into the void, a rare breed of cinema that exerts incomprehensible strain on those enduring sensibilities, darkest fears and intrinsic moral code which govern our existence. 12 Years a Slave is of that ilk and makes for the most blistering, emotionally charged and devastatingly phenomenal cinematic experience in years. If not, ever. This will shake you to your core and repeatedly lash your very being. The transgressive recesses of American history and the slave trade are graphically condemned in a visceral coalition of damning cruelty and injustice. If ever there was a film to make you feel alive and aware of your conscience, this is it. 12 Years a Slave is a contemporary classic and an unequivocal milestone in cinema.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s authentic and convincingly tragic performance as Solomon Northup has elevated him to Hollywood’s elite, it will be a travesty if he is not honored by the academy. Duped, kidnapped and sold into slavery; we are thrust into his predicament and are overcome by an overbearing sense of injustice inflicted upon a free man. From the moment when Northup awakens in chains, we share in his utter helplessness and iterative realisation that he is not in control of his destiny. Ejiofor’s orb-like eyes are overcome by sadness; they form windows to his repressed soul. Northup’s plight forms a microcosm of the worldly iniquity faced by the African-American population at the time. McQueen expertly alludes to the fact that all slaves (not just Northup) faced inexorable hardship and should have been free; they too, had families and were human rather than a subservient subspecies. For every Solomon Northup, there were thousands of others, whose stories will never be told.
As Northup’s twelve years pass, his treatment by his masters becomes increasingly worse. Ford (Cumberbatch) plays his first benevolent yet cowardly master who sees value in Solomon’s virtues but doesn’t have the courage to set him free. The painful sequence in which a remorseless slave auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) separates a mother from her offspring is heart-wrenching and is an apt illustration of how many American’s turned their back on their conscience. It is in this phase of Solomon’s life where he encounters the treacherous Tibeats (the brilliantly evil Paul Dano). The long, drawn out shot (fast becoming McQueen’s signature) of Northup hanging by a tree is a shocking summation of the treachery at the time. A piece of meat hung out to dry.
Michael Fassbender’s startling turn as psychotic slave master Edwin Epps is mesmerising and will send shudders down the most unflinching spine. He is the epitome of the barbarism and regards slaves as his ‘property’ which he can do with as he so desires. The manner in which he chastises and dehumanizes his slaves makes for disturbing viewing, Fassbender loses himself in the role and his performance is simply remarkable. Epps find justification for his actions in biblical scripture ‘And that servant which knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten by many stripes’ (Luke 12:47). It is his relationship with slave girl Patsey, supremely played by newcomer Lupita Nyongo’o, which is particularly arresting. Although she is an efficient laborer, the intolerable abuse she suffers at the hands of Epps and his monstrous wife (Sarah Paulson) culminates in the most shocking sequence in 12 Years a Slave. The lashing scene is painful and incredibly hard to watch, its graphic nature has led many to criticize its merit; McQueen has pulled no punches in his portrayal of the harshness of slavery. Without such a strong, eminently intense exposition of the torturous conditions in slavery, the emotional resonance of the struggle would certainly have been diminished. Look out for the standout tear inducing scene where Northup finds his voice in song, it is as though in that very moment he surrenders to his fate and embraces the struggle faced by his compatriots. The stomach turning betrayal he faces sees a letter of salvation being torched into thin air, a powerful visual metaphor beautifully captured by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.
It must be said that 12 Years a slave will feel unbearably grim and graphic at times to many, it is not for the faint of heart and will test your resolve. With the likes of Django Unchained (2012) and Lincoln (2012) tackling slavery recently, there is a growing sense that Hollywood is looking back on its dark past to search for resolve. Whilst the likes of Lincoln celebrated the president’s achievement of abolishing slavery, 12 Years a Slave is the most condemning film on the subject yet (it is a grade above other comparisons such as Spielberg’s Amistad (1997)).
The memoirs and richly detailed account of Solomon Northup were virtually lost for decades. It is a story which needed to be told and my word it has been actualized with breathtaking fashion. Expect 12 Years a Slave to clean up in the upcoming awards season. There is no question that it deserves to sweep the board with Ejiofor, Fassbender, Nyongo’o and McQueen himself likely to win their respective categories. A bruising masterpiece, not to be missed.