12 Years a Slave, the new film from acclaimed British filmmaker Steve McQueen, is so harrowing, so staggering in its portrayal of a slave through his mistreatment and his despair, you leave the cinema in a daze. You feel like you are seeing pure history being revealed to you through the most striking and powerful of images; McQueen has blown the world of slavery wide open in cinema, tackling the subject through unflinching eyes. It is both hard to watch and yet also impossible not to watch, it feels important, it feels unbearably real. As Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and thrown into slavery, tackles the horrors of his sadistic masters, McQueen does not create villains of the characters played by Fassbender, Dano and Cumberbatch; instead he creates villains of the human race. The characters look into your eyes and blame you for letting this happen to them; blame us as humans for having the capacity to be this evil. 12 Years a Slave is not only a masterpiece, it is also a milestone. Early in 2013, we had Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which was undeniably brave in its stark depiction of slavery, blanketed in cartoonish stereotypes and a whole lot of guilty fun. It paved the way for this movie, braced us for the most extraordinary and remarkable of works in 12 Years a Slave, a film which finally tackles the subject America has been ashamed about for years. It is a cinematic feat, a momentous accomplishment which will be revered for years.
As the title suggests, the film depicts the story of Solomon Northup, a free man with a wife and two children, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years because of the colour of his skin. He quickly learns that to protest his innocence and to reveal how clever he really is will only lead to his death; he goes through his years of labour with the ever-present concept of torture hanging over him, giving away as little as possible about himself to his masters in the desperate hope one day he will find a means to escape this terrible injustice. He soon winds up under the rule of Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, a sadistic master that prides himself on being a slave-breaker, and has a mislead and bizarre obsession with one of Solomon’s fellow slaves, Patsey, and his possible love for her only results in him releasing his incredible wrath onto her and Solomon when his wife intervenes. Although 12 Years a Slave is a breathtaking accomplishment, that does not mean it’s an easy film to watch; some scenes are so harrowing and so full of pain that it seems a sin to just sit there and not do anything to help. McQueen never holds back on the violence and the torture that the slaves underwent, showing every detail, depicting every horrible act of cruelty with a poet’s eye. So many shots are a mixture of the beautiful mixed with the horrifying, as Solomon is brutally tortured while a sun soaked background is vibrant and full of life behind him. McQueen never looks away, never flinches in the face of pain; forcing the audience to watch history being told. One remarkable scene is told through one single shot, as the camera spins around and observes a slave being horribly whipped, focussing first on the pain of the oppressor, while then spinning to the slave’s face, before finally showing the broken and bleeding skin on her back. It’s a jaw-dropping scene, full of both visual flair and of incredible acting, cementing 12 Years a Slave as the masterpiece it is.
Despite the wonderful and haunting directorial style of Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave would be nothing without the incredible performances that make it so full of wonder. Chiwetel Ejiofor is absolutely extraordinary as Solomon Northup, a depiction full of control and passion, using his face to express more than the most beautiful of speeches ever could. There are many steady shots of his face dealing with tragedy, whether it is torture or death, and Ejiofor raises his game to provide what must surely be an Oscar winning performance. His fellow actors give exceptional performances too, with Michael Fassbender as the confused and sadistic slave owner, who seems to love one of his workers, but can only seem to show it through wildly forceful ways. What could have easily been a stereotypically ‘evil slave-owner’ becomes a three-dimensional character under Fassbender’s control, showing him not only to be a horrible and violent man, but also an exceptionally confused one too. The newcomer Lupita Nyong’o also delivers an incredible performance as the slave Patsey, who works twice as well as most slaves on the site but is horribly singled out by the master as an object of both his affection and his wrath. The scene where she is brutally victimised, getting beaten within an inch of her life is the most powerful and horrifying scene of the movie, leaving many audience members crying and shaking at every lash, every cry of pain. It’s a haunting performance, and for a newcomer, a very impressive one. All three of the main actors in 12 Years a Slave deserve to win the prize in their respective categories at the upcoming Oscars, it is a set of performances that will make your jaw drop and your emotions shatter.
All the best and most effective scenes in 12 Years a Slave are the hardest to watch. The most heartbreaking moment for me was when one of the unnamed slaves dies from overworking, and his friends and co-workers gather around his hastily buried grave to deliver their respects. They soon sing a mournful song, and the camera centres on Solomon’s face as he first does not join in, but then slowly sings along, building with emotion and spirit, tears streaming down his face as he starts to really let himself go. It is an absolutely breathtaking example of acting by Chiwetel Ejiofor, nearly rendering me in tears as the strong demeanour fades and his real emotions are slowly revealed.
To criticise 12 Years a Slave seems to be doing it a disservice; it is as strong an example of a perfect film I have experienced in a good number of years. It is a masterpiece of untold proportions, a stark view of history that proves as important as it does brilliant.
12 Years a Slave is the kind of film you are lucky to experience as a film-goer; it makes the endless array of terrible horror movies and unfunny comedies we experience year after year seem totally worth it. It is film-making with a purpose, with ideas to express and with a stark and harrowing story to tell, it is pure history being made on screen. One of the most incredible things about 12 Years a Slave is that it is not only a landmark, a historic achievement for film, it’s also an extraordinary example of film-making, regardless of its historical context. It is a defining film of our generation, lifting the lid on slavery in American cinema; McQueen has expressed extraordinary bravery in tackling the taboo of slavery in film. Ask yourself, how can you not see this now? It is not only important cinema, it is essential cinema.