12 YEARS A SLAVEDirector: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard
Run Time: 133 mins
Opens: 19 December 2013
Rating: M18 (Violence and Sexual Scenes)
The term “historical film” carries with it the old Hollywood-style notion of an epic scope, a cast of thousands and grandiose spectacle. In spite of the appeal of such films, what has been proven time and again is that audiences gravitate to personal, intimate stories, and that focusing on the journey of a single character or a small group of characters helps put history in perspective – especially the parts of the past that are hardest to come face to face with. 12 Years a Slave is perhaps the most pertinent of such films in recent memory.
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York, circa 1841. A skilled violinist, Solomon is approached by a pair of travelling performers who offer him a job as a circus musician. The next day, Solomon awakens chained in a bare room and realises he has been kidnapped and duped into slavery. In New Orleans, he is sold to plantation owner and preacher William Ford (Cumberbatch) and comes into conflict with Ford’s overseer John Tibeats (Dano). Solomon, forced to take on the slave name “Platt”, is later handed to another slave-owner, the savage Edwin Epps (Fassbender), who frequently brutalises the slaves under him. In the midst of his ordeal, Solomon meets the likes of Patsey (Nyong’o), who consistently picks the most cotton but is the most severely mistreated of the slaves, and Bass (Pitt), a Canadian construction worker sympathetic to his plight. Solomon continues to endure slavery, yearning to be freed and reunited with his family.
12 Years a Slave is based on Northup’s autobiography of the same name, a book which director Steve McQueen’s wife found and brought to his attention. McQueen had been looking to collaborate with screenwriter John Ridley (whose credits include U-Turn, Three Kings and Red Tails) on a film about slavery and settled on telling Northup’s story. McQueen, a video artist who made his feature film debut with 2008’s Hunger, has earned a reputation as a filmmaker who makes films that are worth watching but aren’t exactly easy to watch, and 12 Years a Slave definitely falls under that umbrella.
Issues of race and equality continue to rear their heads in a supposedly “post-racial” America, and different filmmakers have addressed this in their own ways. McQueen, his cast and crew have pulled off a truly commendable balancing act. 12 Years a Slave is raw and pulls no punches, but it does not come off as overwrought or emotionally manipulative and isn’t a jump-on-a-soapbox-style polemic. It’s a story that would be very easy to politicise, but McQueen resists. It’s a grim, well-painted portrait of one person’s extraordinary journey which comes off feeling largely bereft of the embellishments that tend to accompany films of the “based on a true story” genre.
Ejiofor has garnered positive buzz and has been named an awards season favourite for his portrayal of Northup, and it is very easy to see why. His performance is earnest and authentic; the determination, desperation, sadness and particularly, the humanity he displays coming together to create a person and not a faceless victim. It is also worth noting that one doesn’t get the impression that the role is a blatant awards bid, as is sometimes all too evident with other actors. It has been said that audiences might lose sight of the larger, horrific picture of the landscape of slavery at the time when presented with just Solomon’s story, but Ejiofor takes the responsibility of doing justice to Solomon Northup’s name as seriously as he should, and it works incredibly well.
The film’s supporting cast provides gravitas in spades and help populate an already-convincing period setting. Cumberbatch has had quite a year, what with Star Trek Into Darkness, The Fifth Estate and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. His William Ford continues that winning streak, the character’s presence raising issues of morality and ethics (he’s a preacher and a slave-owner) without calling too much attention to that theme. Fassbender, who was the lead in McQueen’s first two films, makes for a terrifying and truly despicable Edwin Epps and yet never makes the character a thin, monstrous cliché. The film holds the more decent Ford and the outright cruel Epps side by side and asks “Is one really worse than the other?” Lupita Nyong’o has been considered the film’s breakout star for her turn as Patsey, every bit as much the hero as Solomon is. Producer Brad Pitt’s appearance in the film is brief, a good thing since he would probably be distracting if he was in it for any longer.
At a press junket, director McQueen said “the only reason I’m here, because… people suffered and died for my freedom, and therefore, I cannot pull punches on them. It would be a disservice to them. It would be a disservice to Solomon.” And indeed, no punches are pulled in this searingly affecting biopic, Ejiofor conveying the profound agony of a man so deeply wronged. Hans Zimmer’s score lifts all too liberally from his earlier work for Inception, but that is but a small nit to pick and an insignificant complaint when measured against the thought-provoking, eye-opening and immensely powerful whole that is 12 Years a Slave.
SUMMARY: 12 Years a Slave is not easy viewing but then again, it shouldn’t be. Director Steve McQueen and a strong cast ensure Solomon Northup’s story is given the full weight and respect it deserves.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars