Steve McQueen directs 12 Years a Slave, the hard-hitting film about a man who is tricked, drugged and sold into slavery. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man from up-state New York – a family man and musician – but when he is torn away he is forced to leave it all behind him. He is first sold into slavery working on the Plantation of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who shows some form of kindness to Solomon (now known as the alternate identity of Platt).
This kindness however makes Ford’s choice to keep slaves even worse; keeping them in that position despite seeing the same humanity in them. It isn’t until Solomon has to move to a different plantation after he causes a fight on Ford’s plantation that an even greater struggles arises. Solomon is sold to the inherently cruel Epps (Michael Fassbender) who conveys a psychotic amount of anger and lust for his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o.) Epps’ wife, however, seems to take well to Solomon and leaves her sheer distaste for the slaves entirely focused on Patsey.
It almost seems like Solomon begins to give up on escaping his enslavement and returning to his family but when Bass (Brad Pitt) arrives on the plantation some of of his faith is renewed. The key to Solomon’s survival whilst trapped is his suppression of everything about him, feigning illiteracy and quashing his anger. Solomon enforces the notion that he and the other slaves can’t simply give up.
This film has been released with a huge number of nominations from BAFTA (11 in total) and looks set to garner an equal number at the Oscars when the nominations are revealed. The reason this film works is because while some of the scenes can make you feel uncomfortable, the acting and the direction work so seamlessly that you cannot fault this. As viewers we need to see the violent whippings and anger that was unleashed on the people in enslavement to understand just how bad it was.
The film has also received some criticism for not portraying the fight of the slaves against those who had them captive, as well being too torturous a watch. However, on the big screen, 12 Years A Slave is about the emotional resistance of those enslaved and it is in their determination to not give up that we witness some fighting back from the ‘property’ against their ‘owners’. This emotional resistance can be clearly seen in the performances that you see whilst watching the film, casting aside some of the criticism it has recieved.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance can simply be described as superb. Whilst he was initially apprehensive about taking on this role, Ejiofor shows that acting isn’t just about the way you deliver your lines and getting the emotion right verbally; instead it is often the the lack of words of his character that captures us. McQueen often has shots focusing on Ejiofor’s face which cast aside the words being the key part of storytelling. Lupita Nyong’o should also be praised, 12 Years a Slave marks her debut and it must be noted that it is a bold one indeed. Nyong’o perfectly shows the plight of Patsey – who has essentially given up – with pride and ferocity.
The film also marks a third union between McQueen and cameraman Sean Bobbitt. Bobbitt’s cinematography captures the beauty that the South holds and the vile torture that was inflicted upon those who were enslaved, created a conflict between beauty and horror. Fassbender has also made it a third outing with McQueen displaying yet another brilliant performance that leaves no questions as to why the director wants him in his films.
I confess in some parts this film isn’t an easy watch; there are points that will make you feel uncomfortable but that, primarily, is intended. Wonderfully crafted, this film doesn’t miss the mark. It a story that should be told and will no doubt go down as a masterpiece; McQueen’s film is a must see no matter how difficult it is to view.