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.
The true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom after being sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War United States.
I wish I didn’t have to write this review. I’ve seen a lot of films, probably too many some may argue, but no film has affected me in a manner by which 12 Years a Slave did. In a year in which Quentin Tarantino’s ill judged Django Unchained was released, Steve McQueen’s quite extraordinary masterpiece is more important than ever.
Numerous critics have debated McQueen’s “fascination” with the body. Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave work as almost a trilogy studying the human condition yet whereas his previous films felt slightly hollow in places, his latest studies the human condition in an unflinching and deeply unsettling manner. Every use of the “n” word hits hard and the violence is uncompromising and of such brutal force. Tarantino should learn from this film, the “n” word has hateful, grotesque connotations and these have to be kept intact.
McQueen’s visual flair forces the viewer to see each slash of the whip in a visceral glair that demands attention. In particular, a moment of Soloman hanging with his feet skimming the floor lingers, it’s a shot created to shock and it succeeds. The ugly reality of the horrors he endured is captured in this brief moment. The long shots so evident in Hunger and Shame appear, but these are used more effectively. A single shot of Soloman staring past the camera perfectly captures what’s makes McQueen’s direction in demand of attention.
Michael Fassbender’s Epps is grotesque and almost fetishistic in his use of violence and Fassbender portrays this with a sense of ugly desperation. Sarah Paulson’s personality protrudes from the screen, seemingly sympathetic before unraveling into the monster almost leading the pack of hate. A sympathetic carpenter, played with a beautiful subtlety by Brad Pitt captures the fear and desperation Soloman has suffered through against the backdrop of Epps’ cotton farm.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsy with a magnetic defiance, rare among the female protagonists. Sarah Paulson’s mistress carries an ugly jealousy and sense of insecurity, forcing Patsy into constantly uncompromising positions that McQueen exploits. The repression of Epps and his mistress drives the hate.
12 Years a Slave isn’t simply a film of violence, suffering and hate. It’s a film of survival and hope chronicled by a group of artists at the top of their game. McQueen has made the most important and profound film in recent memory. A triumph from the first to the last minute. Blood, sweat and tears seep out of the screen and you will be left exhausted, moved and sickened.
To even give the film a series of stars to applaud its brilliance would undermine what McQueen set out to make. The greatest compliment I could possibly make would be to place emphasis on its importance. In twenty years time, we will look back upon 12 Years a Slave as a classic.