Review: 12 Years a Slave (2014)

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Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Based on Twelve Years a Slave, an autobiography by Solomon Northup
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano & Paul Giamatti
Runtime: 134 min // Certificate: 15

Steve McQueen’s harrowing new drama, 12 Years a Slave, has received acclaim from right across the critical spectrum as one of – if not the – most honest portrayals of American slavery in cinematic history, and not without good reason. Based on the true tale of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), an educated African American who was kidnapped, stripped of his identity and his dignity and then forced into the slave trade for over a decade of his life, McQueen’s film pulls no punches in its depiction of the single most shameful stain on America’s history and is, just like his two previous feature length efforts – Hunger and Shame – a dramatic, emotional and gut-wrenchingly raw piece of cinema.

Solomon Northup’s story is simultaneously fascinating and appalling, and McQueen does an excellent job of portraying it as such. The injustice done to him, and to millions of American citizens, is one that modern audiences struggle to comprehend; we’re all aware of the horrors of the slave trade, yet we sometimes fail to appreciate them properly. Perhaps this is why certain people have found McQueen’s film so shocking; after all, he doesn’t pander to his audience at all because to do so would do an unforgivable injustice to the topic at hand. I’d even go so far as to suggest that McQueen is apathetic to the sensibilities of his audience; he wants us to stare the truth in the face, he wants us to be offended and repulsed, and though it’s a tough watch his film is all the better for it.

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For me, McQueen is a master of nuance and subtlety. 12 Years a Slave might be relentless in its depiction of intense inhumanity, but McQueen avoids slipping into the dual traps of glamorisation and/or exploitation with real aplomb. In the past, cinema’s tackling of slavery has had a tendency to overplay the brutality. By this I don’t mean that the vicious nature of the slave trade has been exaggerated, but that artistic temperament has been allowed to interfere with harsh realism. 12 Years a Slave, by contrast, is directed by a man who shows an incredible level of personal restraint, so much so that the film initially feels a bit muted. The devastating cruelty isn’t handled explicitly; rather it is allowed to creep up on you. See, for example, the scene in which Northup is left hanging from a tree, with his toes barely scrapping the ground below. McQueen doesn’t impede on the natural flow of the drama, rather he sits in the distance with his gaze focussed on Northup for what feels like hours. In the background, other slaves continue with their duties while the sun starts to set. The scene is at once mundane and horrifying, which makes it all the more distressing.

What this means then is that 12 Years a Slave exudes raw realism. This is achieved not just through McQueen’s directorial approach but also through the characters, all of whom are complex individuals. The villains of the piece aren’t just brutes, they’re also distinctly human. Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a truly revolting man, yet he’s never portrayed as a one-dimensional bad guy. Like Northup, he is actually quite fascinating; he is brimming with hatred, yet he seems to care – at least on some basic level – for Patsey (Nyong’o), one of the slaves he owns. His relationship with his wife (Paulson) is fragile, his grasp on sanity is, at best, flaky and he comes across as a man suffering from a terrible amount of personal repression. Furthermore, his conflict with Northup is based on much more than skin colour; heck, a large part of it seems to be based on simple jealousy. Epps is a miserable, pathetic man, but he’s brilliantly complex. Unlike Tarantino’s Candie he’s far from a caricature. The fact that he is so palpably human makes him all the more hateful and grants the drama a shattering authenticity.

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This is vital as it is character, not plot, which ultimately drives the drama. The characters are all complex, believable individuals and they’re all played with a great deal of power and intensity. Ejiofor captures Northup’s desperation, frustration and determination with a fierce level of passion, while Nyong’o (the show stealer, in my view) delivers a turn as a depressed and shattered (physically, mentally and emotionally) woman that is just utterly heart-breaking. It’s clear that everyone believes in the material, and they all go out of their way to do it justice without ever really trying to outdo each other. Fair enough, there’s a hint of “Oscar-bait” from a couple of them but who cares when the performances are this good? Even Benedict Cumberbatch (who I like, but who I’ve never actually “rated” as such) knocks it out of the park with his turn as the reprehensible but oddly conflicted William Ford.

There are problems with the film, of course, but these are minor and don’t have much of a detrimental effect on the story. McQueen seems to struggle with happiness, so those rare moments where something good happens feel a bit contrived. Similarly, the film is occasionally dogged by repetition; it feels churlish to complain about this but there are a few scenes that simply wouldn’t be missed because they don’t contribute anything to the story. Despite this however, 12 Years a Slave is an intense watch that grabs, nay demands, your attention from the word go. The rare but vocal criticism it has received seems, primarily, to boil down to the audience’s inability to handle what they’re seeing, which perhaps tells you all that you need to know about McQueen’s film; if you’ve the stomach for graphic honesty, 12 Years a Slave is a work of pure art that you absolutely need to watch. If you haven’t that’s fine but don’t complain just because a film doesn’t pander to your sensibilities.