Friday, 17 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

Academy Award Nominations: 9

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Steve McQueen)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley)
  • Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o)
  • Best Editing (Joe Walker)
  • Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker)
  • Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris)


Solomon Northup is a renowned fiddle player, living as a free man with his wife and children. However, after meeting two gentlemen who claim to be interested in hiring him, he awakes from a night of drinking to find he has been tricked, as he is shackled and about to be sold into slavery. He is shipped to New Orleans and given the name Platt while he works for plantation owner William Ford, with whom he gets on with. But he soon falls afoul of Ford's carpenter, and is moved to Edwin Epps's plantation. Epps is known as a slave driver in every sense of the term who believes he is doing God's work in keeping slaves to pick cotton. Northup witnesses the horrors of slavery, especially an uncomfortable relationship between Epps and slave Patsey, as he considers his place amongst the workers: As a wrongly imprisoned man, is he still free, or does he belong amongst the slaves and imprisoned?

Steve McQueen has rapidly established a name for himself in dramatic cinema. I say rapidly, his career has consisted of only 3 feature films since 2008, as well as a Turner Prize in 1999. His debut feature, Hunger, starred Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who went on hunger strike in an attempt to regain political status. 3 years later, McQueen and Fassbender re-teamed for Shame, a story of a sex addict and his sister as they attempt to find their way in the world. Now, McQueen returns again with his most ambitious and epic project yet: The story of Solomon Northup, a free man wrongfully imprisoned and sold into slavery for 12 years. Films about slavery are a tricky proposition; one must find the balance between the brutal nature of slavery in order to make it a realistic document of a horrific time, whilst not going overboard and exploiting the ordeal of the hundreds of thousands of slaves, making it a spectacle rather than a drama. Mercifully, McQueen doesn't just get it right, he makes something of real cinematic importance.

First of all, let's make things clear: For the majority of the film, the same material from every other film about slavery is covered. The brutal beatings for insolence, the wicked plantation owner, the group of slaves singing as they work. What makes this different is the character of Solomon Northup. As a free man, he is considered an extraordinary negro. Yet when he becomes a slave, he doesn't fit because he's far too educated and he hasn't spent his life in slavery like 90% of his cohorts. Essentially, Solomon Northup is the most relatable face of slavery you will likely ever find in cinema. That's not to say you relate to him, I'm saying he's as close as you'll ever get to relatable, which is still a million miles away from understanding what exactly they went through. That being said, 12 Years a Slave feels like you're watching about as realistic a portrayal of life as a plantation slave as is humanly possible without first hand knowledge. This film never becomes exploitative in any way, it always keeps the viewer engaged albeit uncomfortable. The set pieces and events of Northup's life as a slave are as mesmerizing and astounding as they are horrifying and distressing. This is not an easy watch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is given the grave task of bringing Northup to life, and does so with great aplomb. There's a lot of emotion in his actions, which shows Northup's internal struggle as he wonders whether he belongs with the slaves he shares a cotton field with. It's a really visceral performance that is unlikely to be matched this year, and has great chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with, and that's a lot of main characters and cameo appearances. He shares screen time with Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael K Williams, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt, and yet manages to outshine them all thanks to the strength of his performance and the depth of character he creates on screen. For all the praise being heaped upon Lupita Nyong'o for her performance as Patsey, I was unconvinced by what I deemed to be an uneven performance. For every scene where she evokes heartbreaking pain and agony, there's a scene where she seems vacant and inappropriately emotionless. Michael Fassbender is terrifically psychotic and frightening as Edwin Epps the plantation owner though, and ends up becoming a dominating presence on screen. McQueen has a way of drawing out phenomenal performances from this man, and this time gives him a character where he can do something fantastically different.

The film is captured in McQueen's usual visual style; it captures the events in a documentary style with steadicam work mixed in with more elaborate set-ups, but the images captured are extremely rich and stylised and feel extremely cinematic rather than realistic, which creates the impression of an 'epic' film in the vein of Ben Hur and Cleopatra. There are two moments in particular which highlight both McQueen's visual style, as well as his aptitude as a director and story teller. At the impromptu funeral of a fellow slave, a song breaks out amongst the slaves, Roll Jordan Roll, a song typically sung by slaves in plantations. Close ups show Northup's face as he struggles with the decision to join in; even after all he's seen, he's unsure whether he belongs within the group of slaves. The struggle of his face is clear, and eventually he relents, begins joining in, his voice becoming more and more powerful as he becomes more asserted in his now assumed role. Later, near the end, there's a scene involving Epps and Patsey, which is filmed on a steadicam. It's a long scene, and there isn't a single edit. The content of the scene was uncomfortable enough, and the longer the take goes on, the more uncomfortable it is to watch. It never becomes overwhelming, but it shows McQueen's determination to show the real brutality of slavery in southern America and we shouldn't shy away from the facts.

Overall, this is a great film with an important message, though what that message is is up to you to decide should you choose to watch. It's brutal viewing, but ultimately rewarding, even though its conclusion is sudden and abrupt. The cinematography and editing are great, and the music becomes more than just background atmosphere as the score becomes to reflect the position of Solomon in the film and becomes its own character. It's a very deliberate film, in that every small aspect has clearly been well thought out and is deliberately on screen or coming through the speakers. It is, ultimately, the acting performances of Ejiofor, Nyong'o and Fassbender which keep you watching and make this film as good as it is. You feel in the hands of other actors, the impact of the film may have been lessened, but the combination of cast and director have created something which I would hope people will recall as 'something special' for years to come.

Rating: *****

12 Years a Slave was released on 10th January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.