Since Steve McQueen first delivered to our screens Hunger (2008) and later Shame (2011) there was a raw, great talent yearning to be established. Utilising his Art School learnings and ambition, and having won the Turner Prize award in 2006, McQueen in his previous two feature films had already established a niche to the burgeoning auteur inside. He was the man most likely to.
So when it was announced he was being given a large, partly Brad Pitt funded, budget to adapt the memoirs of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, expectations were understandably high. McQueen has taken on the political and personal of the human condition, here his aim is to combine the two in to the most prolonged institution of inequality known to man, it’s roots still felt centuries later in the present, and in the directors own words make a film about slavery because it “is a very important subject which hadn’t been given any visual platform when I started to make the film.”
In a year where exploring America’s horrific slave-owning past was wide-spread from the eyes of white diplomats (Spielberg’s Lincoln) or in violent buddy comedies (Tarantino’s Django Unchained) nothing even remotely comes close to how vital this film is. It’s almost difficult to explain, such an unbelievable experience is the film that it’s pretty tough to find the words to do it justice. Never in my life, certainly of Hollywood “blockbusters”, has a film managed to be so striking, so convincing, unsentimental and ultimately, so crucial.
Steve McQueen has created a triumph here; managing to control such a difficult subject and presenting it with stark realism, as well as a frankly incredible cast. Long-term collaborator Michael Fassbender gives his trademark stunning performance from as the abhorrent yet tangibly human, self-loathing slave-driver Edwin Epps. Elsewhere Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and a break-out performance from the fragile heroine Lupita Nyong’o all seem to relish the opportunity to work with such a monumental director and story. Even Brad Pitt manages his annual attempt to derail a great film with his presence, just about getting away with being the only person who doesn’t seem to fit.
Crucially though, this film would be nothing without it’s central lead performance from Chiwetelu Ejiofor as the (sub-)titular Soloman Northup. The film would quite simply fall apart without his incredibly moving role. If we do not believe in the British actor’s immersing into a world a long way prior to African-American’s rights, then the impact would be lost and seem gratuitous. Set 20 years or so before abolition, as a freedman in the North who is educated and a talented artist, Solomon is stripped of his human traits and slowly re-builds his character to remain both defiant and survive. He is dehumanised, made to make unspeakably awful decisions and finally give in when all seems lost, all conveyed from a range of subtle moves from Ejiofor.
This is felt no more resolutely, not just at the moments of extreme violence and suffering inflicted towards Northup, but when, at his lowest, he joins his fellow slaves in a gospel song which rattles around the periphery of much of the film. It may not seem much, but complexities in his deciding to sing because there’s nothing else left to do but to assimilate into his forced community, is such a powerful, bitter-sweet moment that it typifies the unrelentingly cruel struggle we observe. When we do reach the narrative’s climax with Northup, it is an incredibly moving moment, after every inch of trauma over the previous two hours has been felt and culminating in one of the most uplifting and upsetting final scenes recorded to film.
But make no mistake, 12 Years a Slave is an unapologetically brutal film. The film’s trailers intentionally do not pay justice to what a difficult watch this film often is. And yet it is completely essential to the film to feel every injustice served against not just this man, but an entire race in disrepute over where they stand. For instance, Alfre Woodward as the house mistress seems to actively enjoy her role as a sexually exploited African-American, such are the fleshed-out complexities served to every character, regardless how small a role.
Whereas Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was violent to the point of exploitation, here it serves an important message of, to some extent, guilt but also realism. These horrific experiences are lifted almost directly from Soloman Northup’s real autobiography detailing his (and others) harrowing ordeal. Epps’ brutal wife (played exquisitely by Sarah Paulson – who should be nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars) is often the purveyor of shocking white supremacist violence, adding yet more layers to this incredibly complex issue and period.
Ultimately, 12 Years a Slave is surely the most deserving film to sweep up at awards season (not that the Academy always work with logic). Nelson Mandela’s biopic’s timing notwithstanding, 12 Years a Slave is an important film that should be viewed by as many people as possible. I fear of talking it up too much, but I feel that the torrent of hugely positive reviews that will surely follow in this country (and already exists in America with a staggering 96% on rotten tomatoes) should make this happen. Such a stunning film McQueen has created here, he and his actors will surely get the recognition they deserve in handling such a delicate story with such integrity.