12 Years a Slave – review

12 Years a Slave.Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/AP

12 Years a Slave. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/AP

With recent Golden Globe winner 12 Years a Slave – for Best Motion Picture (Drama) – director Steve McQueen has quickly gone from being one of an emerging pack of up-and-coming British filmmakers to a major player in Hollywood.

With the Oscars just around the corner (2 March), McQueen’s film about the trials and tribulations of Solomon Northup, a free man forced into slavery, is a frontrunner for the big awards.

McQueen has stiff competition from the likes of Gravity, American Hustle and Captain Phillips, amongst others, but the subject matter, direction and strong performances from the all-star cast could add up to Oscar gold.

Michael Fassbender, who starred in McQueen’s previous two films (Hunger and Shame), is back on board, playing brutal plantation owner, Edwin Epps, whilst he is joined by Brad Pitt (in a fleeting cameo), Benedict Cumberbatch and rising star Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine).

However, it is Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Inside Man), who is in the lead role, who has gained most of the plaudits for his portrayal of the beleaguered Northup. The film is based on Northup’s 1853 memoir, found by McQueen’s wife (Bianca Stigter) when helping him research historical content to base his script on.

In an interview with London Evening Standard, Stigler told how she had a ‘Eureka!’ moment when reading the book and said to her husband, “You do not have to write a script any more, this book is the script.”

Northup’s account of his years spent as a slave, under the control of several owners, is harrowing and McQueen does not hold back with his camerawork, as we see this educated and talented black family man from New York, become just another victim of slave labour in 1840s American, treated as nothing less than an animal and a commodity to exploit.

He is given the slave name ‘Platt’ and is urged by his fellow slaves to forget his past, family and education in order to survive, whilst he is reminded by his masters to assume his status as the submissive, as Epps drums in the message, “You are here to work.”

He begins the film initially resistant to this idea of falling in line and keeping his head down, uttering the film’s resonating quote, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”

However, the pain and punishment meted out to him and others on the plantations, over time, douses the fire in his belly. Importantly for Solomon, his experiences never quash his soul or his hope for a return to his family and the freedom that was taken away from him.

The cruel theft of the life he once knew is where we start in the story of 12 Years A Slave, as he is tricked by a couple of white men offering him a healthy sum as a musician to accompany a two-week circus show in Washington.

The swindle sees him drugged and kidnapped and eventually sold to plantation owner William Ford (Cumberbatch) to work the fields in New Orleans. There are flashbacks from time to time to his pre-slave life, where he and his family are smartly-dressed, respected and happy, to show the huge fall from grace Solomon has had to endure.

Our protagonist gets brief respite from the abuse, as Ford is a rare good-tempered master with a conscience (of sorts), but unfortunately on Ford’s plantation he is baited by a carpenter by the name of John Tibeats (Paul Dano).

The vitriolic racist and Solomon end up scrapping, which results in Tibeats and his posse stringing him up from a tree. He is saved from a fatal hanging, but Ford can no longer guarantee his safety and must sell him on to another plantation owner, which is Epps.

From this moment on, he is shown little mercy. Epps is a ferocious character and erratic as he is monstrous, whilst he battles with drink and his feelings towards one of his female slaves, Patsy [Lupita Nyong’o], towards whom Epps’ wife continually abuses, both due to jealousy and disgust.

Solomon must find tolerance and acceptance of the despicable cruelty of his environment in order to stay sane and stay alive, keeping himself ready for any glimmer of hope that arises.

McQueen has delivered an astonishing depiction of the heart-wrenching journey of a free man forced in bondage, amongst the many black people born into slavery.

His descent allows the viewer perception of the concept of the privileged becoming the deprived, and his unrelenting directional style, which pulls no punches when it comes to graphic lashing scenes and other unflinching moments, virtually forces the audience to feel the impact of each blow and the stain of the blood as the big screen offers no place to hide.

After years of Hollywood being barren when it comes to films about the uncomfortable subject of slavery, 12 Years A Slave follows last year’s Oscar-contenders Lincoln and Django Unchained in bringing this period of historical injustice back into the public consciousness.

Where the biopic Lincoln focused on the morality and legal elements surrounding the abolition of slavery and Django Unchained was essentially a revenge movie that used comedy to bring a lightness to balance out the harsh scenes and language, 12 Years A Slave is a no-holds-barred film about slavery that leaves powerful imagery lingering long in the memory, like scars on the backs of the slaves and echoes of pain and sorrow that McQueen that often lets reverberate into overlapping scenes.

Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o all deserve acclaim for their bold performances and Ejiofor especially has emotion etched on his face throughout the film. Django Unchained may have been a more enjoyable watch, but McQueen must be commended for his bravery and vision to shine a light on the unspeakable truth of the past and bring Solomon Northup’s account of his years as a slave to life as a powerful reminder.

12 Years a Slave (15)
Directed by Steve McQueen Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti.
Running time: 134 minutes

12 Years a Slave is showing at the Hackney Picturehouse throughout January and February.