12 Years a Slave

At cinemas now
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender
Directed by Steve McQueen

There is no doubt that 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing film that even with our knowledge of acting and effects makes for uncomfortable viewing. It must have been harder to act it but I suppose the rigours that some of the cast had to go through is nothing compared to what the slaves in the story endure. Based on true events the film is set in the mid -1800s where free family man Solomon Northup is tricked into accompanying two supposed entertainers to Washington where he is promised earnings way in excess of the norm for his violin skills. However the men get him drunk and sell him to a slaver. Solomon wakes the following morning in a bare brick walled cell chained to the floor. Thus begins a dozen years of mistreatment and abuse as he is hauled around several owners. 


He gradually loses his identity; in fact from the start he is given a slave name and after a fellow prisoner warns him to hide his intelligence and ability to read is reduced to degrading manual work such as moving logs or picking cotton. Any glimpses of fairness are always snatched away and he is both subject to and a witness of brutal behaviour from his white masters. Perhaps even more shockingly we see how little will there was amongst the slaves to resist this life. Just as horrendous as the beatings and whippings is the fact that the other slaves stand around and watch.
It is bold of some well known white actors to portray a parade of  heinous individuals with the likes of Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano, all of whose performances one would normally enjoy, being so `good` at their roles that you really come to hate the characters which of course you should. Fassbender‘s Edwin Epps in particular is a truly vile person. Goodness knows how the actors themselves cope with the things they have to say and do.
It is less distracting perhaps to consider the times that are being portrayed. We baulk quite rightly that this sort of thing was within the law and acceptable less than 200 years ago but sometimes fool ourselves into believing that it has completely gone away now. The film is the story of one very unfortunate yet ultimately lucky man - as the title suggests he does not spend his entire life in slavery. As he is driven away at the end we see his fellow slaves receding into the distance and realise for them the brutality goes on as it does today in different forms and in different places. The myth we are sold that the world has disentangled itself from extreme views of racial superiority holds little currency in some counties and I suspect in some parts of the United States to this day. If this film makes some people re-consider those views then it will be worthwhile.
In less considered hands this movie could veer in all sorts of directions from overly mawkish to hideously violent. For the most part Steve McQueen seems determined to deal only in stark reality or as close as filmmakers can get. The only cinematic flair he allows are periodic shots of the flora and fauna of the area, perhaps as a brief respite. There is no attempt to portray Solomon as some flawless hero, no sequences where his resistance results in anything we might call a triumph meaning that the story does not follow the expected narrative pattern. Sometimes Solomon even comes across as less sympathetic than he might and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor puts his heart and soul into the part while showing Solomon’s determination to endure whatever happens. It’s a difficult role even apart from the obvious physical stresses because there is minimal dialogue to convey what Solomon is really thinking.
I’d say the film is a bit too long and episodic plus occasionally shows slightly more detail than it needs culminating in a whipping sequence from which I had to look away. In that instance having already established the situation, McQueen chooses to linger a little too long on the act of violence itself. 12 Years a Slave is not a film you could describe as enjoyable rather it is a powerful and necessary reminder that the worst human behaviour can be closer than you think.

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