12 Years a Slave is a dramatic, harrowing and exceptional piece of cinema which truly depicts one of the darkest times in American history. It’s unrelenting ability to draw you in to the story of Solomon Northup only makes it all the more harder to look away during it’s more unbearable scenes. With breath taking performances from Chiwitel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen at the directing helm, it really is no surprise that it won Best Picture at this years Academy Awards. It is a truly marvellous and tactful tribute to a brave group of people who cruelly suffered at the hands of a merciless plantation owner.
The story came from the novel of the same name which was written by Solomon Northup, our protagonist who was living as free man in Saratoga Springs, New York. He worked as a violinist and lived happily with his wife and two children. One night after work, two men offer him a job playing the violin in Washington DC all the while complimenting his talents and sharing a drink with him. Once in Washington, the two men drug him and he ends up being sold into slavery. He is given a new name, ‘Platt’ and ends up working on a plantation owned by a cruel, drunken master – Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who demands that his slaves must pick at least 200 pounds of cotton a day, if they don’t they will be beaten. His life on Epps’ plantation is meaningless, sorrowful and made worse by the treatment of Patsey (Nyong’o), a young slave girl, who picks over 500 pounds of cotton every day, she is favoured by Epps and is repeatedly raped by him and scorned by Epps’ wife who is blinded by jealousy. It’s not until Solomon meets a Canadian called Bass (Brad Pitt) that a silver lining starts to appear on his black and raging clouds.
Steve McQueen, prior to making 12 Years a Slave, has been projecting his ability to create thought provoking and visually stimulating works of art, starting with short films at the beginning of his career covering an incredibly diverse range of subjects. He won the Turner Prize, he worked as a war artist in Iraq and in 2008 he made his feature film debut with Hunger about the 1981 Irish hunger strike. He then went on to make Shame about a sex-addict and following on from that made 12 Years a Slave. McQueen makes films that other directors wouldn’t want to make, choosing incredibly difficult subjects and turning them into beautiful, poetic and honest depictions of human emotion and historical events. This powerful combination makes his films, at times, impossibly difficult to comprehend but the overall message will stick with you for days after. 12 Years a Slave is no exception, it is an incredibly difficult and emotional watch, it will rip out your heart and stamp all over it, but in the next instance it will pick it up and reassuringly bring it back to life. This merely reflects the struggles of the slaves being depicted who are living in a constant state of fear and terror. Other films have touched upon slavery, Django Unchained, while brutal viewing at times, was so gratuitous in gore it became almost slapstick. McQueen’s vision allows the story of Solomon Northup to be told with dignity, exposing him to our watchful gaze as his freedom and his life is ripped away from him. The glorious back drop of New Orleans, the huge plantation houses stand amongst cotton fields, swampland and moss on the trees emphasizes their isolation, nothing and no one will help them and the despair they feel is beautifully represented in a single shot. This shot (along with many others) is the reason I adore Steve McQueen. By pushing the laws of cinema and breaking the fourth wall, Solomon stares directly at the camera for a comfortable extended period of time, his sorrow is perfectly mirrored in his face and it’s an astonishing and bold shot that takes your breath away and existentially connects you to the person, not the character, Solomon Northup.
In similar lingering shots you are forced to look at something you don’t want to for a very long time. You get fidgety in your seat and you will want to look away, but when you look back it will still be going on. McQueen is encouraging his audience to be brave enough to keep watching. His message is clear and in his many acceptance speeches during award season he explicitly asks us to open our eyes as slavery is still going on today. There are films that are there to entertain, to make you laugh, make you cry and scare you to your wits end, then there are films that have a message, that challenge you and encourage an awareness of real life issues. 12 Years a Slave is one of those films. The performances from Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender are incomprehensible and the supporting cast are undeniably brilliant, no matter how small their part.
Don’t expect to laugh and don’t expect to cry, just watch and take note because McQueen is trying to tell you something. Also take note that it premieres on Saturday, September 6th. Take in this trailer and mark your calender.