Considering the ferocity of Steve McQueen’s small but impressive oeuvre and the subject matter of his latest film, I never expected to be in for an easy ride with 12 Years a Slave but nothing, not the trailer, the word of mouth nor my own imagination could prepare me for both its excellence and the horrors to be found within it. The director’s third feature is based on the memoir of one Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from up-state New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. The film charts the following decade and the unimaginable ordeal that is daily life for a slave.
It’s rare these days that I can report to have sat through a film screening in a packed cinema without seeing at least one or two phones light up in front of me. Talking and popcorn rustling are two other offenders which take one out of a film and back to the annoying reality of the fact that there are other humans around you. Throughout the two and a quarter hours of 12 Years a Slave however I didn’t hear a peep from the audience besides a few sniffles and yelps. The film gripped one and all from its opening frames and touched myself at least (but I suspect most) with a profound sense of heartache, perplexity and dare I say it, guilt.
Following a brief few scenes which outline Solomon’s life as an accomplished and well respected musician, living in middle class surroundings, side by side with blacks and whites, the film takes the turn you know to expect. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt presses his camera uncomfortably close to the actors during these scenes in a trend that continues during Solomon’s kidnapping. The screen becomes claustrophobic and seems to envelop the audience as though we too are being taken against our will. I struggled for breath and my palms were clammy, as they remained so long passed the credits began to roll. The camera is unflinching, not allowing the audience to avert their gaze from both the kidnapping and the horrors that are to follow.
Side by side with McQueen’s images is Hanz Zimmer’s creeping and ominous score. It often approaches the action almost by surprise, arriving quietly after long periods of abject silence before building to hair raising crescendos full of deep, buzzing bass. The score isn’t overused and is absent for long periods in which the background sounds of reeds, insects and the general creaking of the scenery suffice in adding to the sticky, uncomfortable feeling created by the visuals. In addition to this is the sophisticated violin music that Northup performs. Though bound in chains and to an owner he is occasionally called upon to perform, reminding us and himself of his civility and education.
While watching 12 Years a Slave, one can understand some of the denigration recently levelled at Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Criticised in some quarters for being a ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ version of slavery, this movie spares no one from the horrors of the barbaric enterprise. Although personally I believe Tarantino was aiming for something completely different to this film, it feels like a mild salad pepper to McQueen’s eye watering Naga Viper. One almost forgets to breathe as lash after lash of the master’s whip attack the flesh of his ‘property’. Chunks of flesh are ripped from slave’s backs without remorse as characters take vigorous pleasure in inflicting dominance and pain. Psychological as well as physical pain comes flowing from overseers and owners with Solomon losing his name and thus his identity as well as his freedom within days of capture. Reduced to a lump of meet, judged by how much cotton he can pick per day (around his own body weight of the light, fluffy plant is expected), he is stripped of his humanity and we watch on, unable to help. His feeling of helplessness was echoed in my own. I would have given anything to jump through the screen and through time to put an end to his suffering.
It feels almost ridiculous to say this but Solomon nearly gets away lightly compared to others. Although beaten mercilessly on several occasions, it is fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who suffers most at the hands of her vicious and sadistic, scripture preaching owner (Michael Fassbender). Young, attractive and strong she draws her master’s gaze in such a way that he takes it upon himself to use not only her muscles for picking but also her womanhood for his own pleasure. While in her master’s favour she is treated appallingly by his jealous and equally sadistic wife before taking a beating which I admit bought a tear to my eye. Others in the audience I noted were unable to watch at all. Her look to Solomon while writhing in pain shortly after, a look that unspeakingly utters “kill me” was one of the most depressing things I’ve seen on screen.
Although notable for both the intense and unwaveringly harrowing script and masterful direction, the film will draw warranted praise for its acting too. Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the film on his heavily scarred back, appearing in almost every scene. He conveys the dignity and poise of an educated man, even when suppressing it to go undetected on the plantation. His transformation from musician, father and husband to owned property is mind shattering and he is sure to earn nominations from the major awards. One scene in particular summed up his performance for me and came around three quarters into the film. Throughout his captivity Solomon attempts to keep a low profile despite occasional and dogged resistance. He keeps himself slightly separate from the other slaves in an attempt to avoid truly becoming one. During a funeral service the other slaves are singing a beautiful song which Solomon suddenly feels compelled to join in with. There is a sudden but subtle look on Ejiofor’s face when he realises that this is who he is. The ferocity of his singing soon changes his face though as he uses its strength to find strength in himself. It’s an uplifting but simultaneously saddening scene which bought another tear to my eye.
Alongside Ejiofor’s central performance, there are almost a dozen which could be mentioned but special praise should go to Lupita Nyong’o whose character suffers though unimaginable torment. She is incredible and looks set to earn an Oscar nomination at the very minimum. Michael Fassbender plays a neurotically sick and twisted bastard, the ultimate heinous villain and does so brilliantly. You almost feel the hatred behind his eyes. Benedict Cumberbatch has a small role as a softer, more human slave owner, one who seems almost loveable in comparison to others. The division evident in his character’s mind about his ownership of fellow humans is unmistakable in the actor’s performance. Paul Dano is another who has the fortune of playing a character as evil as an actor is ever likely to be offered. He gives a slimy, underhandedness to his performance. A man who knows he doesn’t have the intellect to take charge of slaves but will do anything to hold on to the power he has over human life.
12 Years a Slave is one of those once a decade sort of films which educates its audience and forces them to confront their past. Although it might not be our past per se, we share a collective history in which the likes of the acts witnessed in this film were allowed to take place. We owe it to those who suffered through lives, the emptiness of which we cannot imagine, to attempt to understand or at least acknowledge what took place. This film tells it as it was. It doesn’t sugar coat or leave things to the imagination. Like Alex and the Ministry of the Interior it straps us to a gurney and holds our eyes open wide. It does all of this in a way that leaves one breathless and at a loss for an explanation as to how and why. I truly believe that this film is a masterpiece. Not only does it feature film craft at its finest, in all disciplines but it gives us, fortunately only, a small glimpse into what mankind is capable of, both the evil and thankfully the good.
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