Despite being one of the most promising British directorial talents working in cinema today, watching a film by Steve McQueen is no easy feat. His 2008 debut, Hunger, left a crushing feeling of despair lingering long after the credits and his 2011 portrait of sex addiction, Shame,was no different. In his third instalment as director, McQueen’s attention has turned to the deplorable past of western slavery; a subject tackled by only a handful of films previously.
To cut to the heart of the matter, 12 Years a Slave is every bit as devastatingly beautiful as critics and fans predicted. The film tells the unbearably true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man born in New York state who, after being kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841, is sold into slavery to toil amongst sugar plantations, cotton fields and other forms of merciless labour. Based on Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same name, McQueen has created something truly exceptional. Not only does the film serve as a relentless and brutally honest piece of cinema, but also as an important and thought-provoking social document.
It would be wrong to address any part of the film before commending Chiwetel Ejiofor for his performance. Ejiofor creates a compelling lead in Northup, his portrayal so scintillating and vivacious that his very presence marks a stark contrast to the bleak, oppressive desolation of the surrounding Louisiana landscape. He plays a tortured individual; a man ripped from his family and freedoms and forced to confront the harrowing truths of 19th Century America. Despite his resilience and strength, there is a certain delicacy to Northup with makes the viewing all the more traumatic.
Acting opposite Ejiofor is Michael Fassbender, a regular to the films of Steve McQueen. Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a sadistic, back-breaking slave owner who purchases Northup. Epps is Fassbender’s finest cinematic performance to date and the malice and indignity portrayed so convincingly in his character is tremendously distressing. This is particularly prominent in a concluding scene involving Epps and a slave girl named Patsey (a flawless performance by Lupita Nyong’o), a disturbingly memorable sequence that will haunt even the most impervious viewer.
However, what’s perhaps most wonderful about 12 Years is the portrait of contemporary society and blurred morality that the film depicts. Characters like William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) as noble a man as a slave owner can be, and abolitionist Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) give some insight into the wider social dialogue surrounding slavery at the time. It’s remarkable that in a film that paints such an intimate and detailed picture of one man’s experience with slavery, we also see the implications of the system in the grand scheme.
It’s also very refreshing to see a successful modern film that’s totally uncompromised by outside pressures. Steve McQueen’s vision is clear and there is no doubt that he has achieved the film he set out to make. Much has been made of the commendation that the film is likely to receive come award season, but the film’s reach will extend beyond golden statues. It would not be hyperbole to even suggest that, at least for the foreseeable future, 12 Years a Slave will become the definitive film on the subject of slavery.
In truth, 12 Years a Slave is a bold, courageous and unflinching retort to Tarantino’s 2012 droll exposition of slavery, Django Unchained. McQueen restores poignancy and horror in place of Tarantino’s larger-than-life characters and the results are extraordinary. The best advice in watching 12 Years is to revel in it as thoroughly as possible on your first viewing because, like Hunger and Shame before it, this is not a film you will want to stomach twice.
12 Years a Slave (2013), directed by Steve McQueen, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Certificate 15.