Directed by Steve McQueen 12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, of the same name, which tells the story of his twelve years as a slave. Solomon is lured to Washington where he is drugged, kidnapped and eventually sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After a fight with John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Solomon Northup’s life is no longer safe at Ford’s plantation thus he is sold to the violent plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
In recent years there have been a number of films about the experiences of black people throughout American history. Most recently we had the Civil Rights films ofThe Help and The Butler, and just last year we also had Fruitvale Station which examined institutionalized racism within the New York police force. The number of American films discussing slavery is rather thin on the ground in comparison to films discussing the holocaust, this is rather concerning especially if you are in the Stanley Elkins camp. Two major films based on slavery released in the last twenty years include Amistad and Django Unchained. Films such as Lars von Trier’s Maderlay, the British film Amazing Grace and Spielberg’s Lincoln (though briefly) also discussed slavery but Amazing Grace discussed slavery from a British viewpoint. However, none of the films mentioned match 12 Years a Slave for sheer raw power.
All the major films that depicted slavery showed it in its full brutality, Tarantino’sDjango Unchained was more exploitive, yet never disrespectful or racist (as some have argued), but Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the most harrowing to watch. Every swish of the whip, every vile usage of the word ‘nigger’ that is fuelled with hate and malice sting considerably, the word sounds more painful than a cracking of a whip, especially when used in the context of hate. Steve McQueen’s depiction of the seemingly never ending suffering at the hands the cruellest plantation owners is a deeply disturbing experience as the film looks unflinchingly at the series of dreadful events that took place in early modern American History.
What really drives 12 Years a Slave into being so emotionally devastating is the central performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor. Steve McQueen is known for long, lingering shots (think Carey Mulligan singing New York, New York in Shame); these lingering shots remain focused on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face which showed more emotion than any line of dialogue ever could display. It is clear from the eyes that the horror occurring around him are beginning to take its toll, just from those withered eyes and the difference in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s posture in a standing position is very telling that the beatings, overworking and brutal conditions of slavery can change a man.
The sudden change from a free man (as free a black man could be in the ninetieth century, the conditions of his freedom isn’t greatly discussed whether it is in the novel is yet to be seen) to the restrictions on freedom as a slave in which he lives his entire life in fear is a tough one for Soloman to adjust too. This is a change that has a great impact on a man as Solomon’s previous experience of freedom means he has something to miss (unlike other slaves who have never experienced freedom), but he never gives up on his desire to be free once more, yet try as he might the conditions of slavery take its toll.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s outstanding central performance is certainly the main driving point that makes 12 Years a Slave such a powerfully and deeply afflicting film, but the supporting performances are equally noteworthy. There are a number of famous faces such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti, but it is the pairing of Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson that is most memorable for the wrong reasons. The two are as cruel and sadistic as each other; Fassbender’s performance makes the vicious, multilayered and neurotic plantation owner even more intimidating. Equally cold and callous is Mary Epps (Paulson), a character driven by jealousy at her husband’s attractions to Patsy, Epps serves as a character to investigate the relationship between black women and white women during the period whilst making ‘a mockery of the one between Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen)’ in Gone With the Wind.
Similarly to The Thin Red Line, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography captures the beauty amongst the horror with exceptional shots of wildlife, sunsets and sunrises. These scenes almost serve as break from the dreadfulness of what is happening on the cotton fields of Louisiana much like how slaves use song to escape, albeit briefly, from their ordeals. No film is without its critics as some have labeled 12 Years Slave torture porn. Any accusations of torture porn are so far off the mark that they end up in row Z. Calling 12 Years a Slave torture porn completely misrepresents what torture porn actually means as calling something torture porn suggests that the film’s violence is part of fun.
12 Years a Slave is an important film, it is one that is profoundly moving because of the convincing performances that were guided by the expert hand of Steve McQueen. Masterfully adapted by John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave is one of the best films on the subject of slavery.