Around awards time at the beginning of every year a host of films vie for everyone’s attention. There are a selection of film types that do so by tackling ˜worthy’ subject matters, or hold historically importance. Some are artistic, some powerful, others move you, astound you with their beauty or overwhelm you with their raw emotionally charged nature. Then every once in a while, a film comes along that does it all.
Based on a book of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the true life account of Soloman Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in Washington in mid-1800s who is drugged and sold into slavery. Without his papers to prove his freedom he must accept his new life in the possession of slavers including Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Epps (Michael Fassbender). Forced to hide his educated and free past for fear of repercussions, he slowly forces himself to accept his new life while waiting for an opportunity for freedom.
The film opens with a strangely harrowing sexual scene before catapulting the audience back in time to when Soloman is a free man. The warning signs of future attitudes and behaviours are evident from an early scene in a shop where a black slave is ordered around by his white master. Turner Prize-winning artist-turned director Steve McQueen has maintained his eye for brutal violence. But unlike his previous efforts Hunger and Shame, 12 Years a Slave replaces cold aloofness with passion and heart.
He tackles the troubling subject matter of racism and slavery head-on, never failing to show with startling visual power the moments of torture that the slaves had to endure. Extended scenes of hanging and whipping are tough to watch, but remain some of the most important in the film especially when juxtaposed to other slaves going about their business in the background. Yet the most memorable and chilling scenes involve the wives of the slavers, whose casually dismissive behaviour belies an institutionalized national psyche that has convinced itself that slaves really are less than their masters.
The key to whole film lies at the feet, or more importantly the physicality of Chiwetel Ejiofor. The slow transition from upright to slumped and bowed and beyond tells of a performance that is as subtle and low-key of any in recent memory. His Northup is aware that to survive he must hide the truth or his education, his history and his freedom and it is with very small mannerisms that he brings to the screen a most incredible acting performance. Director McQueen helps the performance by lingering a little bit longer than is comfortable in certain scenes, including one key close-up where Northup stares directly into the camera making the audience complicit in the action unfolding before them.
The supporting cast are superb too. Cumberbatch’s Ford or simplistically the ˜good’ slaver raises questions about whether the good treatment of some slavers slightly forgives the fact that they’re still part of a broken and deeply unfair system. While Fassbender is a revelation as Epps, the sadistic and psychotic slaver whose self-loathing explodes in moments of violence. There are even some moments of uncomfortable comedy with very subtle moments such as him leaning his arm on a slaves head while he’s making a point. Yet it is his relationship with Northup’s fellow slave Patsey, portrayed with stunning fragility and fiery fortitude by Lupita Nyong’o that truly highlights his troubling inner torment and there’s even a small sense of pity for a man so conflicted. It is a masterclass performance and one that later highlights just how out of place Brad Pitt’s small cameo is.
12 Years a Slave is that film. It grips you from the start and never once apologises for its sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful scenes. It is historically important, perfectly directed, wonderfully acted and combines everything that makes cinema the artistic form that is so loved by so many people. It is urgent, powerful, moving, astounding and never takes one backwards step.