With 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has drawn upon one of American history’s most tragic and shameful periods to construct a film that soars as a tale of triumph over adversity. Adapted from the true story of Solomon Northup, the film does not shy away from the horrors of the slavery movement in the south of America in the 1800’s, nor does it linger unnecessarily on the physical and psychological deprivations inflicted upon those ensnared in a life of servitude, treated as nothing more than chattels to be bought, sold and traded at the whim of the plantation owner.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent in the lead role as Northup, an educated African-American who works as a musician and lives with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York. He is lured to Washington with a promise of a job, only to find himself drugged, kidnapped, sold and sent to work at a cotton plantation in the deep south where he is subjected to a dozen years of bondage. His first ‘owner’ is the compassionate but conflicted Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who struggles to reconcile the contradictions that slavery entails: the conflicting notions that slaves are human beings yet also items of personal property that can be freely traded and exchanged.
Northup is subsequently sold to vicious plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose self-loathing is the force that drives the cruelty to which he subjects the slaves, spouting biblical verses as justification for his savagery. No-one is spared from his brutality, including Patsy, the young female with whom Epps is obsessed. Having been subjected to physical assaults from Epps’ hateful wife (Sarah Paulson), Patsy is subsequently dealt a severe whipping that leaves her skin shredded and bleeding. This is one of the few moments of extreme violence in the film but it is sufficient to demonstrate the treatment to which slaves were subjected. In her first ever movie role, Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o is incredible as Patsy, a young girl who catches her master’s gaze and pays the price for a lust the she never reciprocates. In contrast, Alfre Woodard makes a brief appearance as a former slave who has married a white man and wallows in the luxuriant lifestyle in which she now finds herself.
Brad Pitt, whose company Plan B produced the film, appears late in the piece as a Canadian abolitionist who becomes the conduit through which Northup ultimately secures his freedom and a reunion with his family. The film ends on a quiet, but powerful, moment with Solomon apologising to his family – which now includes his daughter’s husband and new born son – for his absence. Unlike Tarantino with Django Unchained, McQueen doesn’t rely on moments of mirth to make the moments of brutality even more impactful on the audience. He doesn’t need to because the sheer hardship of everyday existence for Solomon and his fellow slaves is front and centre of every moment, without ever veering towards Spielberg-esque sentimentality. In one of the most powerful scenes, sadistic plantation lackey Tibeats (Paul Dano) leaves Northup dangling precariously from a noose with his toes barely touching the ground. The other slaves in the vicinity simply go about their business, fearful that any effort to render assistance will carry the most severe of consequences.
Shot on location in Louisiana, the small(ish) budget is evident at times – such as the lack of wide shots of the paddle steamer – but this never detracts from the authenticity or impact of what we see on screen. At times, McQueen holds the shot just a little longer than might ordinarily be the case, lending these moments a sense of contemplation and anticipation. So good in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Dwight Henry and Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis both have small roles here, as do the likes of Scoot McNairy (Argo, Monsters), Garett Dillahunt (TV’s Raising Hope) and the incomparable Paul Giamatti (American Splendor, The Ides of March). Like films of the holocaust, movies that explore slavery and its legacy need to be made to ensure we never forget the horrors of the past. In the hands of Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave delivers us a powerful true story of survival against the odds in a time when ignorance and hatred reigned supreme.