If you haven’t at least heard about this movie over the last few months then the rock you were living under did a damn good job. This is a film that has been spoken about and acclaimed since it first saw a release in November of 2013. The Academy acknowledged the power and importance of this film this year when it awarded the “Best Picture” award to 12 Years a Slave as well as picking up awards for the best screenplay, by writer John Ridley, and best Supporting Actress for the exceptional and emotional performance of Lupita Nyong’o.
Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), 12 Years a Slave is based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup. The account tells the story of Solomon Northup, a violinist who lives as a free man in New York with his wife and two young children. He is hired by two men to tour Washington as part of their theatre company, and that is when Solomon’s existence takes a heart wrenching and shocking turn. Kidnapped and sold to a man named Platt, Solomon works on plantations among other slaves and suffers abuse at various hands. He eventually finds himself in the employ of Edwin Epps, played with a vicious precision by Michael Fassbender, and things go from bad to worse. He comes into contact with other enslaved individuals who effect his life over the course of his time as a slave.
The film is one of those experiences that you likely won’t forget, but it is hard to choose a word that explains the experience of seeing it. It isn’t enjoyable, because to enjoy something like this doesn’t seem quite right, but it is hard not to appreciate the scale of the project, the wonderful performances from the actors and actresses involved and the sheer importance that this film was made. Steve McQueen allows moments of long thought to occur as we watch the face or body of Solomon as he is battling with his thoughts and trying to find a way to deal with, or escape, the situation he finds himself in. These moments, some that last a number of minutes, are extremely relevant and significant to the feel of the film and the need for people to realise even a fraction of how repugnant stories like this, of which there are thousands, truly are.
The film does look beautiful, and that makes for a stark contrast when we see the brutality and oppression that is in the foreground much of the time. It is like we are seeing a breath-taking painting being splashed with heavy tar, ruined and soiled for the good of nobody. The score by Hans Zinner, which ranges from banging heavy drum beats to calm and solitary violin sounds is striking also, and further adds to the various emotions that this film makes you feel. From sadness to hope and from anger to happiness, 12 Years a Slave pulls you in all directions and forces you to witness the hostility, brutality and horror of slavery and the terrible things that Solomon Northup went through.
The performances are top notch, as you’d expect. Michael Fassbender puts in a career best, in my view, as the obscene and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps. His teeth gritting and wine spilling character is one of the most disgraceful in recent film memory. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things), as the lead character of the tale, Solomon Northup, gives as intense and emotional a performance as I have seen. His scenes in which he attempts to claim himself a free man are frustratingly brilliant to watch. Best Supporting Actress winner, Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey is a side story that we never fully get to hear the depths of. She gives such a devastating portrayal of an enslaved young woman and deserves the amount of credit and commendation she has garnered due to it. There are plenty of smaller roles that also deserve credit, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti and others all doing a fantastic job in the short time they appear.
12 Years a Slave, much like films such as Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List and The Pianist, offer insight into a harsh and horrific moment in time and in doing so allows people to hear the stories of individuals who have been forced into terrible circumstances. It is one of those unforgettable films, a film that shows us grotesque images because it is important not to sugar coat atrocities of such magnitude. With a director who has a passion for what he is doing and a cast who plunge themselves deep into their characters in order to realise the story to its fullest potential, 12 Years a Slave is a film that should be seen by everyone.