Last year, the subject of slavery was tackled in very different ways by award winning directors Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino and both lost out in the big race for the most coveted Academy Award. This year, the British artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen presents his honest take on the topic with ’12 Years a Slave’, a gruelling adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, and a strong contender to take the top prize at this year’s ceremony. Northup, portrayed exceptionally by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a wealthy free man with a loving family and in 1841, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. McQueen shows off his expertise in what is only his third feature, creating something which is brutal and beautiful in equal measures, taking a more hard-hitting approach at highlighting the dark side of America’s history than those before him.
The film is episodic in its structure, as Solomon Northup, or Platt as he is renamed is shunted around from pillar to post, encountering one horrible man at a time. His collisions with these powerful men are filled with tension and help take the plot forward. It slowly develops, from one year to the next, the straight forward narrative lacking invention but reflecting the prison sentence like environment. In between these emotionally charged meetings with kidnappers, slave traders and owners, we mostly see Platt suffering in silence which carries a lot of weight, keeping his head down and hiding his background and education in order to stay under the radar but never giving up hope.
In contrast to his trauma, a young female slave is more vocal in her struggle, wailing about how much she misses her children. Her vulnerability makes her a favourite of wicked plantation owner Edwin Epps and prime target for his merciless abuse. His character, as cruel as he is, is at times garish and over-the-top whereas his wife Mary lurking in the background is far more chilling, Sarah Paulson giving an exquisite depiction of evil. Epps relationship with Patsey builds to a disturbing resolution which severely tests Solomon’s character and puts the physical horror of slavery at the forefront of the audience’s mind. The big moments are heightened by a colossal yet familiar sounding score from Hans Zimmer.
McQueen’s directorial vision is well complimented by a series of stupendous performances, with Chiwitel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as clear stand outs as Solomon and Patsey, both earning their countless nominations. Ejiofor wears the emotions of his character through the expressions on his face superbly doing great justice to the mental strength it must have taken to overcome the hardships, and Nyong’o gives a stunning turn as the long suffering victim. Michael Fassbender is also impressive as Edwin Epps, a frequent collaborator of McQueen’s having starred in both his films before this, but showing an entirely different side to his talents. Sturdy support is given from Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano, all briefly but suitably fitting the bill. Dano, in particular, is very strong as John Tibeats, a man who takes unnerving pleasure in dishing out pain to his slaves. His clash with Solomon is memorable, and one of the highlights of the entire film.
’12 Years a Slave’ is uncomfortable but necessary viewing, cementing Steve McQueen as one of the most forward-thinking filmmakers in the game, and by achieving this level so early on in his career, it will be interesting to see which controversial matter he will turns his focus to next. His methods are bold and fearless, and his visual background is evident in his craftsmanship. His latest effort is his most striking work of art to date.