12 Years a Slave - Review

There’s no doubt that director Steve McQueen makes confronting and thought-provoking cinema - his first two films tackled some pretty intense subject matter: the IRA hunger strikes (Hunger) and the perils of sex addiction (Shame). For his third film, 12 Years a Slave, McQueen adapts Solomon Northup’s 1853 account of his abduction and sale into slavery. This film not only lays bare the machinery of slavery, it examines the people who engaged with it. Only a few films each year leave a lasting impression on me and this film is certainly one of them. 12 Years a Slave could very well become one of the definitive films addressing slavery. 

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man. He’s married with two children and is an accomplished violinist. After accepting an offer to play violin with a group of travelling performers, he is abducted, imprisoned and shipped away in the dead of night. Solomon is plunged into a life that he couldn’t possibly have fathomed; one of cruelty and unquestioned servitude. Sold by Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon begins his long and tortuous journey, being handed from man to man, each with their own unique style of slave ‘management’. The most villainous is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender): violent, unpredictable and possessive of his slave “property” . It’s on his plantation that the bulk of the story takes place.

The film has a stellar cast, however the standouts are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Benedict Cumberbatch. Chiwetel Ejiofor is masterful as Solomon, a character whose determination and pride are gradually whittled down by years of maltreatment. Cumberbatch’s Ford represents the portion of society which wasn’t entirely comfortable with slavery, yet still engaged in it - an interesting moral conundrum to watch play out. Michael Fassbender has starred in each of McQueen’s films and here is truly frightening as an unhinged, alcoholic and bible bashing Epps. Fassbender plays the role without a trace of character redemption, which reflects his commitment to making the character utterly, plausibly menacing. Lastly Lupita Nyong’o, in her first feature film, almost steals the entire film right out from underneath her seasoned co-stars. She plays Patsey, a slave who is the subject of Epps’s fixation, giving the film a deeply disturbing subplot.

In several scenes, Director McQueen strips away the sentimentality which otherwise may have worked as a buffer for his audience There are scenes which can only be described as relentlessly uncomfortable. For example, a shot of Solomon being hanged, his toes only just touching the ground, is held for a considerable time as we watch Solomon twist and gasp, to the point that it becomes unbearable to watch, yet the shot continues. Any other director may have accompanied this scene with stirring music to signify Solomon’s fighting spirit, but not McQueen. He doesn’t succumb to cheap manipulation; he simply shows life the way it was, which in turn pays far more respect for what they suffered through. He has an unflinching almost dispassionate style, which I found an ideal way to approach a story like this.

This isn’t a particularly easy film to watch, but one that is tremendously rewarding. The confronting imagery and powerful performances lingered with me well after seeing it. 2014 is shaping up to be a great year for the world of cinema.

If you see the film and agree or disagree with my review, feel free to drop a line below.

- Stu


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