Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy, Michael K Williams, Brad Pitt.
The brutal realities of slavery are brought to life in harrowing fashion in this confronting film from British director Steve McQueen. This is the third feature film from the former visual artist turned filmmaker, and is his most assured and affecting drama to date. McQueen explores damaged characters – his first film was Hunger, about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, while his second film Shame was an excoriating exploration of a sex addict and his downward spiral.
Suffering has been a common theme in his previous films, but here it is heightened exponentially. It is telling that it took a British filmmaker to make such an uncompromising, in-your-face movie exposing the inherent racism, inhumanity and injustice at the heart of slavery, but this difficult issue probably needed an outsider’s perspective. The classic mini-series Roots and films like Mandingo, its sequel Drum, and more recently Tarantino’s retrowestern Django Unchained have dealt with the issue of slavery in far more exploitive and melodramatic fashion. Under McQueen’s unflinching gaze though, the cruelty of slave owners and plantation masters is often unpleasant and hard to watch and he revisits the horrors of the slave trade in unrelenting visceral fashion.
12 Years A Slave is based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northrup, detailing his experiences after he was kidnapped by slavers in 1841 and forced to endure a harsh existence for over a decade. Northup’s story was also the basis of a 1984 telemovie Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, but this film has garnered far more attention and won numerous awards.
The film is set in the years before the Civil War. When we first meet Solomon (played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) he is a respected musician and a free black man living in upstate New York with his family. He meets a couple of men who claim to have lined up some work for him in Washington DC, only to find himself betrayed, drugged, beaten and sold into slavery under the name of Platt. Thus begins his journey into the heart of darkness of man in these pre-Civil War times in America’s deep south, where slavery and slave labour was the backbone of the plantations.
He has to conceal his own talents and intelligence to avoid humiliation and brutal mistreatment, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of the various plantation owners he is sold to. His first master is the gentle Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who treats Solomon with a modicum of dignity, even giving him a violin to play on occasions. But Solomon earns the wrath of a couple of overseers, in particular the cruel and bigoted Tibeats (Paul Dano, effectively vile).
When Ford falls on hard times financially he is forced to sell his slaves to the repellent, sadistic Epps (Michael Fassbender, a McQueen regular who has appeared in all his movies). Epps is a monstrous and sadistic man full of hatred and self-loathing, who beats his slaves for the slightest provocation. He justifies his actions by quoting scripture. He is also obsessed with the beautiful and soft-spoken slave Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), and there is something heartbreaking about her desperation and vulnerability as she tries to form a connection with Solomon. It is only through the chance meeting with a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist (Brad Pitt) that Solomon eventually finds the means to gain his freedom.
The script has been written by John Ridley (Three Kings, U-Turn, etc) and he spares us few horrors in his episodic exploration of the horrors of slavery, and there is plenty of cruelty throughout the film. Ridley and McQueen give us a catalogue of rape, abuse, beatings and brutal physical punishment inflicted out of little more than spite. This is a dark, raw, graphic, disturbing and emotionally draining experience, and some scenes almost unfold like a horror film. McQueen doesn’t pull his punches.
He has assembled a superb cast, mainly comprised of British actors, to flesh out the characters. Ejiofor has delivered solid performances in a number of smaller, low budget features like Kinky Boots, etc, but this is the role of his career. He brings both a sense of vulnerability and quiet intensity to his performance, and you can almost see his struggle to retain his dignity in his eyes as he endures a series of cruel physical punishments.
Fassbender, who has appeared in all three of McQueen’s films to date, plays the most unlikeable character of his career. He delivers a typically intense, committed performance, full of a palpable sense of rage and violence, but he also manages to bring some surprising shades and unexpected light touches to the character to try and make him more three dimensional. Sarah Paulson is enigmatic as Epps’ severe and shrewish wife who is jealous of his obsession with Patsey. Dano (who was recently seen in the dark psychological thriller Prisoners) is a nasty piece of work and delivers another unnerving and creepy performance. Paul Giamatti is the ironically named Freeman, a slaver who buys and sells slaves to the various plantation owners.
Not every character is evil though. The very busy Cumberbatch is very good and brings a touch of compassion to his performance as the seemingly sympathetic Ford, who treats Solomon with a modicum of dignity and respect and tries to help him. There are nice cameos from Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy, Michael K Williams, and Brad Pitt (who is also one of the producers), who provides the voice of conscience in a small but pivotal role.
McQueen brings an almost old fashioned visual style to the material – one of his signature touches is the use of long shots and extended takes to bring a sense of tension to scenes, a device he used effectively in Hunger. There are a couple of brutal scenes in 12 Years A Slave that certainly benefit from this technique. The film looks superb, courtesy the gorgeous widescreen lensing of McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (The Place Beyond The Pines, etc). Hans Zimmer’s score effectively underscores the dramatic tension and strong emotions that drive the story, and is complemented by the haunting negro spirituals that occasionally accompany the action.
12 Years A Slave is an unrelenting and disturbing story of survival and the resilience of the human spirit. It is also an excoriating film that takes a blowtorch to the entrenched evils of slavery. 12 Years A Slave is hard to watch at times because of its oppressive and brutal nature; nonetheless this is a film that demands to be seen as both a history lesson and a powerful piece of cinema.