12 Years a Slave (2013)
Dir: Steve McQueen
“Your story is amazing, and in no good way.”
This is really an incredible true story, that of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who was sold into slavery, and spent (spoiler in the title) 12 years slaving in Louisiana, while having to keep his education and bid for freedom quiet until an opportune time for fear of severe beatings or worse.
This is an incredibly powerful film, and it doesn’t hold back from depicting the horrors of slavery as they were recorded firsthand by Northup. A film that is telling a tough story about slavery really shouldn’t be easy to watch, and this really isn’t, with a number of scenes showing beatings, hangings, and other humiliating, cruel, and violent acts. Cleverly the director Steve McQueen has put many of these things in the background of the shots, so while others carry on working or doing other things, there’s a slave being whipped behind them and it’s essentially ignored, highlighting how commonplace and unquestionable these things were.
I was amazed with many of the beatings scenes, how little was actually shown, rather putting the focus on the use of sound, with a whip crack or agonized cries being loud and clear, so that even turning away to not look, the scenes were still painful and impossible to ignore.
I could write lots about the treatment of slaves, but it’s not my area of expertise and the film really puts all that across far better than I could ever do. Things will stand out, even small aspects, such as a scene that takes place in a shop, where Solomon’s family are freely buying from the shopkeeper who treats them as close friends, and when a slave spots them and walks into the shop looking on in amazement, he is welcomed as a customer before being dragged away by his master. Other things like a scene with Paul Giamatti (‘Saving Mr Banks‘) as a slave trader, who has no signs of compassion and calls the slaves ‘beasts’, treating them as livestock.
Through all of this, the key to it working so well is the performances by the cast, most especially the lead. Chiwetel Ejiofor (‘Amistad‘, ‘Kinky Boots’) is an incredibly versatile actor, and here is perfectly cast, as he can beautifully convey the way that Solomon is both as a free man, then as he is forced into slavery, with all the emotions and struggles along the way. His performance is incredible, and completely deserving of all the praise and awards he has so far been given. He’s nominated for the Oscar tomorrow night, but sadly I feel that he won’t win it but only due to stiff competition.
The rest of the cast is superb too, Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Into Darkness‘, ‘August: Osage County‘) is the first of Solomon’s masters, William Ford, who apparently was described in the book as a good man. There’s an excellent piece in the film that points out he’s still a slave owner, and although he’s shown as compassionate to a point, he’s far from perfect, and Cumberbatch acts this part excellently. Solomon’s next master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, ‘Prometheus’) is not compassionate at all, and known for his cruelty and taking pride in ‘breaking’ his slaves, and Fassbender makes the character suitably loathsome.
The other performance that is getting a lot of attention is that of newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who plays fellow slave Patsey. She gets some of the most emotional scenes, and is mesmerizing to watch, expressing all the heartache and pain that Solomon is trying to avoid. Nyong’o is nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars, and may indeed win it.
The film is really beautifully shot, with a number of different settings and moods shown. There are many scenes that make use of darkness and shadows, then others outside where the slaves work on cotton and other plantations. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is strangely not nominated at the Oscars for his work, but it really is excellent, better than some other Oscar nominees I have seen in the past few weeks. Where you really notice the quality of the shots and editing too is in McQueen’s use of very extended shots, that linger longer than others might. Often when showing something unpleasant or hard-hitting, such as Solomon hanging from a tree for a lynching, once the point is made, the scene doesn’t end or cut away, the shot just stays there statically watching longer than is comfortable, driving home the point.
I could go on for ages about other aspects, such as the use of music and singing, the score by Hans Zimmer, or many other things. For me it’;s the fact that there are so many aspects of this film that are done to the highest standards, that make it such a contender for ‘Best Feature Film’ at the Oscars. I’m completely divided in my thoughts as to whether it will triumph over ‘Gravity’, but if it does this would be a very worthy winner. It’s not an easy film to watch, but puts the realities of the slave trade on screen in a way that’s drastically more effective than anything I’ve ever seen before.