Already building up a solid head of steam as Award Season rounds the corner 12 Years A Slave may well be an Oscar-bating drama but it is substantially more besides. Coming off the back of other slave themed films, such as the politically minded Lincoln and the comic-book stylings of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave is a more essential piece of cinema than both of those films combined, and that is taking nothing away from either.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man in 1841 New York. Accepting a job as a violinist for a pair of circus performers, Solomon is betrayed, his name changed and finds himself no longer free. First sold to sympathetic Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) Northup soon makes an enemy of slaver Tibeats (Paul Dano). In order to protect Northup from Tibeats Ford sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who prides himself on his fierce control over his ‘property’. Upon Epps’ cotton plantation Solomon meets Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave girl who has attracted the affections of Epps and the wrath of Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson).
Early on Solomon realises that his education and claims to being free will get him nowhere but as his plight thickens so he learns that his knowledge and moral compass could well lead him into dangers untold.
As with his previous films Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen refuses to shy from putting his characters, and indeed his audience, through hell and back. 12 Years A Slave takes an unflinching look at the horrors that slaves encountered in ways most cinema dares not address. Anyone hoping for a film of the week of uplifting and soaring emotions best look elsewhere. What you will find here is something altogether harder to swallow and all the more impactful as a result.
McQueen, aided by the staggering visuals of director of photography Sean Bobbit, uses the breathtaking beauty of The South to juxtapose the monstrosities that occurred there during the period. One minute you can be seduced by the golden sunset over weeping trees, the next you’re exposed to scenes of such deplorable violence that will leave you reeling and traumatised.
Again, as with his previous work, McQueen elicits the power of his story through characters embodied by a cast on career best form. Michael Fassbender, a veteran of McQueen films, plays one of the most shameful characters to grace the screen in some time. His Epps is no villain, he is the devil incarnate, a raging, unpredictable animal who toys with his slaves the way a child may burn ants beneath a magnifying glass. But the star of the show is Chiwetel Ejiofor. For too long he has been stuck in supporting roles, shining bright but never allowed to truly flourish. As Solomon he rights that wrong; his performance is the beating soul of the film, a man through whose eyes the sheer terror and hostility towards slaves is made real and chilling.
Like Schindler’s List, 12 Years A Slave should be used as an educational tool to open peoples’ eyes to the reality of slavery. Seeped in sweat and blood but bathed in beauty and hope, 12 Years A Slave is captivating and packs the kind of emotional punch that leaves you silent for a long time after the credits have rolled. Sensational.