We will constantly be told that 12 Years a Slave is groundbreaking and necessary filmmaking and it is true. A year after Quentin Tarantino placed the slave trade under his unique spotlight, Steve McQueen takes a more sombre look at that bleak part of American history. Comparisons can and will be made to Tarantino’s revenge Western but, aside from the theme that unites them, there is little to be drawn from such an association. Tarantino locks his slaves inside a cartoonish world where the damaged Django is able to gain some sort of catharsis through his violence. Steve McQueen makes this film knowing that there can be no easy answers. Whilst you could easily walk away from Django Unchained feeling that some form of justice has been served, there is nothing to shield you from the horrible truth in McQueen’s third film. Rather than revenge, we are being served up the unpalatable truth.
12 Years is the adaptation of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man who lives with his wife and children in New York. Thanks to his unquestionably trusting nature, Solomon is tricked, drugged and kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery. We follow Solomon’s journey from the capital to the plantations of Louisiana where he is passed from the hands of a money-hungry trader (a despicable Paul Giamatti) to the benevolent but weak Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and, finally, the malicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon is stripped of his freedom, dignity and his name, having been giving the moniker Platt. He must hide his past, keep his head down and do everything that his masters expect of him.
Solomon is played by the hugely talented Chiwetel Ejiofor. There is a stark and uncomfortable contrast between the Solomon we see in the opening scenes and the man we see bound and helpless. The free man walks confidently around his home town and happily interacts with his neighbours. Then we suddenly see him chained up in a dark and dank cell before he is violently beaten by his captors. It is a horrifying change.The violence and language of McQueen’s epic are intended to make its audience uncomfortable but it is presented in such a way that it affects on a deeper level. You are not seeing images that are simply shocking and disgusting but something that is barbaric and illogical. McQueen doesn’t have to do a lot here and just lets the narrative speak for itself. Through McQueen’s lens, slavery is seen in uncompromising brutality.
12 Years treats us to the typical McQueen style of precise framing and shots held onto just long enough to make you uncomfortable: the unflinching gaze. It is on Ford’s plantation that Solomon is given some respect but the caring owner does not control his staff quite as well as he should. The diabolical overseer (Paul Dano) takes a disliking to Platt and goads the slave into standing up for himself. In response, Solomon is hung from a tree with his feet barely touching the ground and gasping for breath. His fellow slaves go about their business behind him but the audience is held face-to-face with the violence for much longer than they’d like.
Then we have the harrowing scene towards the end of the film where the downtrodden Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), already having been subjected to Epps’ uncontrolled lust and sexual assault, is savagely beaten. As Solomon is forced to dole out this punishment, the camera circles the scene showing the horrifying effect this has on both Patsy and Solomon.
McQueen focuses a great deal on Solomon’s face, which places an enormous amount of pressure on
Ejiofor. His face, and most importantly his eyes, becomes the emotional centre of the film: carefully conveying every necessary emotion. You never see Northup admitting defeat and, through every awful encounter, Ejiofor lets a hint of determination shine through. This is acting of the greatest quality and Ejiofor deserves every award and nomination he’s been given.
Alongside him are equally Oscar-worthy performances that ensure the drama on screen never feels melodramatic or mawkish. Nyong’o, in her film debut, is spectacular but harrowing and plays Patsey with a fiery tenacity. It is a breathtaking start to her career and I am still outraged that she missed out on the BAFTA she so obviously deserved.
Though the most memorable performance, by far, comes from Michael Fassbender as the savage Epps. Epps starts off as potentially cartoony: a drunk and sadistic man who delights in breaking his slaves and terrorising them with fake bible verses. However, he is given extra depth through his obsession with Patsey and his strained relationship with his wife. He is an utterly terrifying presence who, despite being only a second away from violence, is far more dangerous. Fassbender provides us with a disturbing and awful portrayal of a slave owner who has become just an inhuman as the people he owns.
12 Years is a film that unpicks the intricacies of American slavery – the power-relationships, the daily horrors and the overlooked practices – and shows it to be nothing more than madness. This is an angry, intense and stylish examination of the slave trade that is meant to challenge the audience (I for one was an emotional wreck by the time the credits rolled) and one that will stay with you long after it ends.
McQueen doesn’t hide the realities that were faced by many behind witty word-play, suggestions of great change, or violent revenge narratives. He offers a painful, emotional and unrelenting view of what thousands of people faced less than 200 years ago. There is no happy ending here: just the haunting image of a broken man. Forcing you to face up to the corporeal realities of slavery, 12 Yearsis set to become a modern classic that goes to show just how powerful cinema can be.