- 12 Years A Slave is a film ‘based on an old, harsh reality’; Jack Woodward reviews McQueen’s latest feature film.
Never before has slavery been portrayed with such brutal honesty as 12 Years a Slave. This film, based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, uncompromisingly sketches the practices of slavery in the 19th century though the eyes of a freeman suddenly tricked into servitude. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in an Oscar-worthy performance, hangs onto hope and uses every opportunity to escape as he moves from plantation to plantation.
There are different kinds of masters that Northup must deal with. Paul Dano returns to that easily hateable, power-mad coward we’ve seen him play before in There Will Be Blood, while Benedict Cumberbatch plays one of the more friendly owners, rarely choosing to punish his slaves, instead reading them passages from the Bible. Michael Fassbender manipulates that scripture to achieve the opposite ends, abusing his slaves under the defence that ‘I may do what I will with my property’. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as young Patsey, repeatedly raped by her owner. The award juries have a difficult task ahead of them, as each actor is as equally deserving of an award.
Soon enough Solomon is surrounded by suffering. The hardships the slaves go through are difficult to watch at times. The frequent whippings are portrayed in all their rawness. People yelping in pain at the top of their lungs, a brief mist of blood sometimes visible, or the gut-wrenchingly painful-looking wounds themselves are shown. There are moments of pure grief distilled into the shortest of sections, like a mother separated from her children, unable to stop her desperate wailing.
The brutal inhumanity of slavery is perfectly portrayed, but 12 Years a Slave is more than a string of heavy, hard-hitting scenes. The film is Solomon’s story, and the focus point never strays far from him to huge benefit. Solomon Northup as a person must have had the will of thousands to live through all that he did, and the film works just as well as a testament to the human spirit. The great strength of this amazing story is that it’s a very humane one. We all desire freedom and the ability to live our lives free of constraint, and this film represents a flawless account of how slavery took freedom with a shrug of terrible, emotionless indifference. This is Essential cinema.
12 Years a Slave is in cinemas now.
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano