It’s safe to say that director Steve McQueen has earned himself a trifecta, his third film (following the harrowing Bobby Sands prison drama Hunger and his powerful depiction of sex-addiction in Shame) proving that he is one of the finest directors working today. 12 Years a Slave is a powerful film that serves as a painful reminder of a truly shameful period in U.S. history.
The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who is tricked, abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. So begins a path of desperation and cruelty, in which Northup, separated from his wife and children, struggles to hold on to hope and dignity in the midst of his horrific circumstances.
Hard-hitting and relentless, 12 Years a Slave is all the more powerful with the knowledge that what you’re witnessing is based on fact. These things happened. It’s an infuriating and painful film-going experience that doesn’t wear gloves to cushion the blows, it wallops the audience with a barefisted depiction of one man’s fight to survive.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, 2012) brings Northup to the screen in a powerful, inspirational performance that never once feels forced or manipulative. His pain and struggle is almost tangible. Northup’s often silent moments as a witness to acts of cruelty also serves as a sort of channel for the audience to observe through. While men and women are degraded, beaten and killed in scenes of startling simplicity, Northup can only watch; knowing that one word could also spell his end.
Northup passes through a few different “owners” through his 12 years. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti are all excellent as different types of “masters” that treat Northup in various ways, but it’s Michael Fassbender as the troubled Edwin Epps that really makes a mark. Epps is a violent alcoholic that is as troubled with his own actions as he is certain of the white man’s divine given superiority, and Fassbender more than delivers. His hatred certainly comes across as terrifying, but it’s the character’s emotional complexity that really furthers Fassbender’s performance.
Depressing and at times overwhelming, the film manages to infuse a sense of optimism amongst the bleakness. As the title states, Northup spent 12 years as a slave, but most were not as fortunate. The film ensures that you know the honest truth about what happened to many. It doesn’t shy away from the cruelty, nor does it butter up the inescapable fact that many were born as slaves and died the same.
There’s so much to appreciate in 12 Years a Slave. McQueen’s direction is outstandingly assured. Scenes are beautifully constructed, with the director’s signature long takes allowing the audience to absorb as much detail as possible. McQueen’s work with cinematographer Sean Bobbit (The Place Beyond the Pines) ensures that every moment, no matter how stark, has a sort-of beauty that leaks through, and Hans Zimmer’s dramatic score compliments the often harsh visuals.
If there are some slight imperfections to be seen, it may be in the one note approach to the film’s overall emotion. A hard-hitting note to be sure, but one that feels a little repetitive as the story-arc plateaus throughout the film’s mid-section. Also, Brad Pitt (whose Plan B productions produced the film) feels a touch out-of-place as a Canadian abolitionist. These are but small qualms to be had in a film as impressive as this.
A director working at the top of his game, a cast giving their all, resulting in an important, beautifully made film that deserves, nay, needs to be seen.