To do a film about one of the darkest chapters in human history justice, it needs the sort of uncompromising and unflinching directorial stamp that Steve McQueen brings.
The British Turner Prize-winning artist’s two previous films, 2008’s Hunger and Shame (2011) both explored the outer limits of human behaviour and have remained as critically divisive as they are intransigent.
However, McQueen has broken out to a far wider audience with his remarkable adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, whilst staying true to his unique filmmaking sensibility.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an accomplished violinist living with his wife and children in New York when he is deceived into accompanying two men to Washington, where he is kidnapped, transported to Louisiana and sold into slavery. The next dozen years are a living hell as he’s first ‘bought’ by hypocritical plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) before being sold on to a different ‘master’ in the form of the psychopathic and paranoid Edwin Epps (McQueen regular Michael Fassbender) to work on his cotton plantation.
Epps, like most of his kind, sees Solomon – renamed Platt – and the other slaves as nothing more than mere possessions which he can do with as he pleases, most sickeningly to the timid Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) whom he abuses repeatedly. As the brutality the sadistic Epps metes out to the slaves goes on seemingly without end, Solomon’s resolve and spirit gradually erode as despair and hopelessness at the thought of ever seeing his family again eat into his soul.
Certain critics have criticised 12 Years A Slave for straying far too long on the numerous gut-wrenching scenes of violent punishment (some have gone so far as to label the film ‘torture porn’). Similar denunciations were made about Hunger and Shame.
However, what few films about slavery there have been have almost all shied away from what life must have really been like for thousands upon thousands of people who were bought and sold as if they were apples and oranges. As tough as it is to watch (and it can be extremely tough at times), to water it down would have been a far bigger crime.
McQueen has cited the dark and bewitching work of Spanish painter Francisco Goya as a major influence on the film’s aesthetic design. It makes sense; just as in Hunger, there’s a hypnotic horror at work here that’s all the more potent for being so masterfully shot (the director’s signature lengthy takes and static shots are both liberally employed). Scenes of unfathomable suffering are bookended with moments of beautiful tranquility worthy of Terrence Malick – a sort of calm before and after the storm.
One of the film’s most distressing scenes comes when Solomon is saved from hanging at the hands of the racist overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano), but is left for hours on the verge of suffocation with his toes barely touching the muddy ground while other slaves go about their daily work and children play in the background. It’s a quietly chilling evocation of the institutionalism of slavery.
Another memorable shot comes early in the film when a chained Solomon stares helplessly out of his Washington cell as the camera pulls up to show The White House – a supposed symbol of justice and equality.
However, perhaps 12 Years A Slave‘s most devastating image comes when Solomon breaks the fourth wall and stares hollow eyed at the audience in hopeless exasperation. For me, it’s the single greatest shot of any film this year.
Ejiofor is simply magnificent is the central role. The horrors he is forced to witness and participate in etch themselves on his face. The actor loses himself in the part and is mesmerising to watch.
Many of the film’s supporting cast are superb, in particular the incredible Nyong’o as the tragic Patsey and Fassbender, whose bravura performance as Epps is terrifying and genuinely unhinged. While Django Unchained‘s plantation owner Calvin Candie got all the best lines, there’s nothing glamorous to Epps; he’s just a monster whose evil is as ferocious as it is deadly.
It’s not a perfect film; John Ridley’s screenplay is a little too on-the-nose at times, especially in the scenes between Solomon and a noble Canadian labourer played by Brad Pitt, who gets to speechify about the sin of slavery. In addition, the radiance of the scenes with Solomon’s family early in the film tries too hard to exacerbate the darkness that is to come.
These are insignificant quibbles, however, in a film that comes as close to visual poetry as I’ve seen for a long time. Not for the faint of heart, and neither should it be, 12 Years A Slave is, as befits the director’s original vocation, a work of art.