12 Years A Slave (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Entertainment One UK) Running Time: 134 mins. approx.
One of the most highly praised films of recent times that has dominated the awards circuit should be easy to review since the only course of action is to praise it to the moon, right?
The truth is 12 Years A Slave is difficult to review purely as it’s a difficult film to watch dispassionately and objectively because of its shocking subject matter and the confrontational and frank manner in which is has been treated by British director Steve McQueen. Based on the confirmed factual memoirs of former slave Solomon Northup first published 1853, the saddest indictment about this film is that this is a true story, telling us of an abominable period of US history. For those of us outside of the US this film will create a sense of anger, shock and bewilderment at the vile events portrayed here; for Americans I can only assume a sense of shame will be felt after viewing this stark expose on their country’s past.
There is probably little need for a full plot recap but in 1841 educated musician and family man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is offered a lucrative performing job away from his family but is duped and drugged by his white brokers, awaking in a cell, his hands shackled. Solomon, now renamed “Platt”, is then sold as a slave to New Orleans plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who shows some rare benevolence towards his slaves in direct contrast to carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who is threatened by Platt’s superior intellect. A physical showdown ensues so Ford sells Platt to brutal neighbour Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a bible quoting man who thinks nothing of his slaves, except for the hard working Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
Films about slavery have been made before but often gloss over many of the grim realities of this abomination of a practice but none have tackled it as head on and with the sheer determined ferocity that McQueen has. He sensibly keeps away from the sensationalist approach and relays the story with an acute sense of a shocking us with the truth as opposed to deliberately trying to be shocking. There are scenes that make you look away from the screen, scenes that will be raise your ire, scenes to make you cry. This is emotional manipulation in the truest sense, galvanising the audience to be aware of what happened and to understand the plight of the slaves while holding a mirror up to our own shames. It doesn’t feel like an exploitation film either, keeping everything on the level of this being a human interest story that could easily have been transferred to a humans vs alien setting or the Jews under a Nazi stronghold.
What hits home the most is the utterly abhorrent parochial attitude of the slave masters towards their slaves and the fact that the law of the time was equally complicit in denying the black people fundamental freedoms. Each master has “ownership” over their slaves to treat as they please, with no compunction or fear of recrimination. Epps is a pathetic drunken bigot who rounds his slaves up to dance to suit his whims, and beats anyone who defies him. It has been reported that the real life Epps was far worse than portrayed here which makes Fassbender’s chillingly gleeful conviction of the man infinitely scarier.
Solomon’s case is compounded by the fact he was a “free man” prior to his kidnap meaning he wasn’t kept as a servant to a white master – thus unemployed blacks are apparently free game to be treated worse than animals. If a slave dared to stand up to his white superior, as Platt often did, HE was automatically in the wrong. One of the most unsettling scenes see Platt hung for his fight with Tibeats yet no-one, even the sympathetic whites, would do nothing to help him, letting him swing as they went about their business. Equally upsetting is Patsey receiving a whipping for illicitly getting a bar of soap from a neighbouring ranch. I defy anyone not to be moved by this disturbing moment.
For those who are appalled by the use of the “n” word that is all the slaves are known as, and indeed how they refer to themselves. In context it is justified as an indicator of the period the story is set in and after a while it loses its sting as it is less malicious and more an idle identifier by the blinkered whites. Not all whites are bad people though – Brad Pitt makes a somewhat ill fitting cameo as Mr. Bass, a carpenter who gets under Epps’s skin by challenging his racist and buying ways, throwing his moral Bible based sophistry back in his face. Such was the arrogance this falls on deaf ears and serves to only cause greater friction for the slaves.
You’ve heard the praise and accolades bestowed upon the two main leads for their startling performances and I shall not dissent from that. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a career defining essaying of Solomon Northup, in which he is forced to rely on nuanced control as a man intent on keeping his head high and his integrity and dignity in tact through the most horrific and demoralising situations imaginable. His silent strength is both endearing and empowering for the downtrodden. Similarly newcomer Lupita Nyong’o provides the emotional centre of the film as the hardworking but tortured Patsey, a broken young woman who suffers from both Epps’s lust and wrath as well as the spite of Mrs. Epps. As debuts go, there are few this impressive that have immediate impact on both an emotional and artistic level. A truly sublime turn indeed.
Unquestionably worthy of its hype 12 Years A Slave is – forgive the cliché – a film that needs to be seen as both an artistic triumph and a morally bold and challenging piece of work. Kudos to all involved.
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
English SDH subtitles
12 Years A Slave – A Historical Portrait
Rating – *****
Man In Black