A few hundred words to review 12 Years A Slave will simply not do it justice; posing the question where on earth to begin with a film that evoked such an array of emotions? One thing I will say, to me this film was flawless in its portrayal of the characters, the setting of the plantations and most importantly in the stark reality of the hardships and brutality faced by the slave population. To miss out on such a moving, powerful film would be doing a great disservice to yourself.
Steve McQueen, British director of 12 Years A Slave, has already won himself an award for best director from the New York Film Critics Circle alongside a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture with this film. It is rumoured he may soon become the first black film-maker to win an Oscar for best director. McQueen is also known for his first feature length film, Hunger which won him the Camera d’Or award. Again starring Michael Fassbender, it is another uncomfortable yet poignant watch and after having seen both films, the parallels between them are numerous.
So what is the film about? The plot, with screenplay by John Ridley, follows the true 19th century memoir of Solomon Northup played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Solomon is a musician, husband, father and educated citizen of New York State who in 1841 is betrayed, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. From where his journey begins, being sold to plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to his run-ins with Tibeats, Ford’s cruel farmhand (Paul Dano) and finally to his sale and subsequent torment at the hands of plantation owner Epp’s (Michael Fassbender). Solomon Northup is deprived of his identity, unwillingly renamed ‘Platt,’ his dignity and most of all his humanity.
Similar to McQueen’s Hunger, and what contributed consistently to the raw poignancy of 12 Years A Slave, were the long single-take scenes. From a lengthy close up of Solomon’s pained face, to being cruelly strung up to a tree, left to dangle on the edge of his life whilst the plantation quietly ambled on around him. The minutes seem to drag by as some of these single scenes made for an extremely uncomfortable watch; however their purpose is subtly yet powerfully evident. Undoubtedly what is most shocking and what appears to be the driving force behind this emotional powerhouse, is the brutality. One scene, that I can’t seem to shake off and which left me feeling sickened to the point where myself and a couple of other people in the cinema had to look away, was the whipping of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). The uncensored and unflinching violence inflicted on Patsey during this scene as well as over the course of the film, remained just under the level of gratuitous but simply realistic stopping the film from becoming just another Hollywood blockbuster.
Whilst the majority of the focus may be on the brilliance of Chiwetel Ejiofor and rightly so, Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Epps is what struck me most. Having seen a great deal of what he’s already starred in such as Inglorious Basterds, Eden Lake, A Dangerous Method and Hunger, this is the best performance I’ve seen from him so far. His character, Master Epps bordering on psychotic and sadistic was frighteningly unpredictable, creating almost unbearable scenes of suspense. Fassbender personified the barbarianism and cruelty capable of plantation owners and did so with terrifying ease. At the other end of the spectrum, Solomon Northup alongside Patsey brought to life the suffering and struggle of the slave population. Solomon especially so with his heart-wrenchingly pure facial expressions of utter anguish and despair. Chiwetel Ejiofor skilfully never underplays or overdoes the role of his character, bringing an unquestionable and relatable quality to Solomon.
Whilst 12 Years A Slave is not an easy watch by any means, it has brought back to the forefront of people’s minds a topic that we may have become desensitized to over time. This beautiful yet harrowing film left me feeling emotionally drained and somewhat disillusioned with human nature’s brutal capabilities, yet also with reaffirmed faith in the unbelievable strength of human spirit to overcome all the odds, at all costs.