12 Years a Slave, 2013.
Directed by Steve McQueen.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhané Wallis, Garret Dillahunt, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, Ruth Negga and Taran Killam.
In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
On a rainy English day in Shoreditch, North-East London, the Rich Mix Cinema was the host to an early festival screening of Steve McQueen’s highly praised and eagerly anticipated 12 Years a Slave. After his two masterworks – Hunger and Shame – McQueen has stood out to me as one of if not the finest director this country has to offer. His unique and incredibly profound stylistic approach to cinema is a revelation, in an era where film as a medium has sunk underneath conglomerates, exploiting the art form for profit. McQueen’s work is an antithesis to this ideal.
To help you understand my personal response to 12 Years a Slave, my heritage is of mix race — a black mother and a white father. I have always been personally engaged with films about my culture; however the paucity of black filmmakers has always struck me as astounding. Through McQueen’s genius, I found myself a black, British director to whom I could truly relate. Although American, Spike Lee was before my time, and in McQueen is a man who I could not only idolise for his achievements, but appreciate as an entity greater than simply a director.
All those months ago when news spread that his next project was going to be his BIG Oscar push, I revelled in excitement. When the second, even more exciting wave of news arrived that it would be on slavery, I was overcome with an immense sense of pride. Of all the directors in the world, Steve McQueen was the only one who I could rely on to execute a film about slavery with the compassion, empathy and courage which it deserves and requires. On hearing this news I instantly knew that in him was the potential to deliver a revolutionary, game changing piece of Cinema – and well, he did just that and more.
Slavery is often a restrained subject matter. Rarely is it challenged to the core, as directors fear to present it with enough bravery, honesty and realism. The reality which McQueen fully understands is that slavery was the epitome of hell. It was brutality, bloodshed and a display of the evil nature of man that can escape when blinded with ignorance and self righteousness. Many a weak film has been made about slavery, but none has truly bitten its tongue and delivered a pure representation. That trend is no longer the case.
12 Years a Slave is a true story adapted from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup. This is essential to McQueen’s creation as instead of creatively forming a narrative, he approached this project with a real humbleness and sensitivity towards its factual elements, allowing him to explore the raw, the real and the true. This is not a piece of visual art like Shame or Hunger; this is a piece of narrative mastery. This incredibly inspirational story follows Northup, a free man from Saratoga, New York, betrayed and sold into the world of slavery. This fascinating narrative creates a perfect structure for McQueen, who is able to work within sections as we go throughout each slave owner Solomon is owned by. The first, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is incredibly complex; complex because we like him. He is at heart, a decent human being, caught in a time of grave indecency and turmoil. He is the embodiment of the era for many White Americans. Yes he buys slaves and calls them niggers, atrocious for a contemporary audience to witness, but he is a product of his time. At the core, Ford is a man with respect for human life and shows humility towards his slaves, a rarity for a white man of the time. This is not however the case for one of his White employees, Tibeats (Paul Dano). He is a merciless angry, vulnerable man who inflicts intense prejudice upon Ford’s slaves. Paul Dano is truly a wonder in his shoes. He brings a real spectrum of dimensions to an otherwise typically antagonistic character. The sequence where he inducts the slaves to a rendition of “Run, Nigger, Run” is beautiful, becoming incredibly haunting and very unsettling to witness.
The second slave owner is the antitheses of Ford, the notorious “slave breaker” Edwin Epps, played near perfectly by Michael Fassbender. We’ve seen Fassbender’s capabilities in both Hunger and Shame, especially behind McQueen’s lens, which clearly gets the best out of him. Epps is perhaps, the most an chilling creation in 12 Years a Slave. He is not a man of true malevolence, simply a man whose rage and seeming hatred for the black man leaves him a cold, evil soul. He is the representation of the worst elements of slavery, polar to the symbolism of Cumberbatch’s Ford. What’s compelling about Epps is that, like all the characters in the film, he is 3 dimensional. His sexual obsession to his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) puts into question his true feelings towards black people, and carries an underlying irony which is exquisitely profound and symbolic of the hypocritical confused state of the time. Nyong’o is fantastic as Patsey, incredibly moving and ultimately complex, her suicidal mentality and sexually exploited mentality leaves an empty pit and shock within the audience. Probably the largest name in the line up, Brad Pitt, is surprisingly only in the film for a short time, however he is perhaps the most reflective character. He plays Bass, the Canadian – note that he’s also an American outsider here – in support of emancipation. After having suffered through 120 minutes in a world where slavery is accepted, we as an audience are given no suggestion of hope in this dark era until Bass arrives towards the end, offering an empathetic response which allows our contemporary hindsight to be reflected, allowing us a glimmer of positivity.
But above all of this, we must stand up and applaud Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. This is his career defining role, and in my eyes, the outright Oscar winner. His portrayal of Northup is incredibly captivating, exceptionally empathetic, and there are lines of heart breaking rhetoric which roll off his tongue in such beautiful harmony and deliverance. We knew he was an exceptionally talented actor, however here he is able to showcase the full range of his capabilities without it feeling at all forced. In his struggle, Northup becomes a man more aware of his humanity and the value of human life – above and beyond many others of his time. Having been once free, he is able to see the horrors from an inward perspective, and is able to have compassion for his fellow brethren which when he was a freeman, he would have also been partially blind to. His eyes pierce our hearts and scar our souls, as he manages to generate emotion within me which I have never experienced in watching a film before. Ejiofer deserves every praise for his performance of Solomon, as he creates a representation of a truly inspirational soul. Its performances like this which makes you really appreciate the true power of cinema.
Now onto the technical aspects. From this perspective, every aspect of the film is near flawless to its means. The score by Hans Zimmer, although resonant of that in Shame, is sombre yet at the same time emits feelings of hope and life entwine. The cinematographer Sean Bobbitt adds another landmark to his incredible retrospective of films – The Place Beyond The Pines, Hunger, Shame. He is a master of his craft indeed. The period setting is very well produced, with costumes, buildings and props creating a realistically imagined 19th century South. Patricia Norris (Costume Design), Alice Baker (Set Design) and Adam Stockhausen (Production Design) deserve full praises, as this creation was an exceptional feat to achieve.
Mark my words, this is the Best Picture winner of the Oscars 2014. Chiwetel Ejiofor will win Best Actor, and Steve McQueen will win Best Director. If that doesn’t happen, it will be a crime. McQueen has created the film of a generation. 12 Years A Slave is the most important film about racial history since American History X. This is the finest piece of work I have ever witnessed in tackling black history, and manages to draw me into questioning the deepest regions of my own existence. What’s sad to think is that we are still not far removed. The events of this story only took place 179 years ago, which is a pinprick in the timeline of human history. We must take from 12 Years, a lesson. That regardless of the minor differentiations, we must love one another with sincerity and general human kindness, and we must let the mistakes lead us into a brighter future; so that the mistakes of our ancestors may never be repeated. Only 59 years ago racial segregation between black and white was outlawed in the United States. We are still at the sunrise. 12 Years a Slave forces us to face the horrors of our past. McQueen holds nothing back. He is truthful to the very core, and through this truth, we can begin to understand. I cannot wait for the world to witness to this masterpiece. It will make you cry, it will make you ache, and it will make you reflect. 12 Years a Slave is a simply beautiful piece of work, which deserves to be up there among the very best. Steve McQueen: Thank You.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★