Dir: Steve McQueen • Wri: John Ridley, Solomon Northup • Pro: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Joe Walker •DES: Adam Stockhausen • MUS: Hans Zimmer • CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
12 Years a Slave is an exceptionally well made telling of a tale based on a true story about a free man kidnapped and enslaved in 1841 in the USA.
Solomon Northup, a free negro carpenter and violinist, leaves his wife and children for Washington, DC, joining two men who promise him a dollar a day and three dollars for performing with them (they’re circus entertainers). After enjoying some wine with the two men, Solomon finds himself waking up in chains. Slave traders coerce him into taking on the identity of a “runaway nigger from Georgia”, beating him with a bat and then a belt. The film chronicles what “Platt” (his new name) must suffer in the life now forced upon him.
Platt works at the plantation of William Ford (Benedict Cumberpatch), a sincere Christian. His staff includes the ruthless and jealous carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who attempts to lynch Platt. Ford transfers Platt into the ownership of the demanding and cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). At Epps’ plantation, Platt witnesses some of the degradation endured by the female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who pleads for help to end her life so she can escape her plight.
In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg presented the politicking that characterized President Lincoln’s efforts to ensure that Congress abolished slavery. In Django Unchained, a very different kind of film, Quentin Tarantino gave us another of his revenge fantasies. 12 Years a Slave, set well before the Civil War years, deals directly with slavery, focusing on the story of an individual to show the horrors of a violent, exploitative and brutal labour system.
John Ridley skilfully adapted Solomon Northup’s book, giving the film a literary quality without it feeling overwritten. It explores complex themes. The slave owners justify their exploitation by appealing to Christian scripture, while the slaves themselves appeal to God for hope and salvation. It demonstrates how Christian beliefs then supported a system so obviously abhorrent and unjust to modern viewers, while also providing some relief for the slaves.
On the economic aspect, Paul Giamatti, playing slave trader Theophilus Freeman, sums up feelings about the harsh treatment of the slave, while tearing apart a family: “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin.”
Solomon enrages John Tibeats, the carpenter on Ford’s estate, with his suggestions for improving efficiency on the plantation. This and another scene, in which Epps holds Patsey close as he struggles with his obvious desire for the female slave, recall Schindler’s List, in which the Nazis shot a female Jewish architect who advised resetting a building’s foundations and in which Amon Goeth desires and then kisses his servant Helen. Epps terrorizes Patsey, growing jealous and suspicious of her behaviour. He gives his slaves a ‘whupping’ when their daily cotton pickings fall below 200 pounds and, when drunk, he rouses them at night to have them dance about his house, making his overworked “property” even more tired and inefficient. Michael Fassbender infuses Epps with an intensity that, with his character’s drunkenness, makes him an unpredictable volcano of violence. Whether the film’s personalization of slavery’s brutality detracts from the suffering of millions remains an open question.
Beatings, hidings, and whippings are not merely threatened; they take place frequently and horrifically, and McQueen doesn’t shirk from showing the battered bodies and scarred faces, nor does he sensationalize such scenes. Indeed, his direction is far more conventional and restrained than we’ve seen so far, although he again works with Sean Bobbitt’s expert framing and Joe Walker’s tight editing. Two scenes particularly reflect this filmmaking team’s brilliance.
In the first, a beating reduces Solomon to a shadow of his former self after he awakes to find himself chained in a darkened room. Lighting and framing leave Solomon in shade as his temporary master sets out his new identity as a runaway nigger. The camera captures Solomon’s silhouette on the wall as his face remains obscured in the darkness.
In the second, Solomon remains hanging from a noose as a result of Tibeats’ attempted lynching. Female slaves emerge from their quarters and ignore him. McQueen highlights the slaves’ fear and terror as they avoid acknowledging Solomon’s predicament until, at last, a woman approaches him to give him some water. It’s an unnerving sequence, in which McQueen first shows Solomon’s feet scraping on the ground to stop the noose from doing its work, and this becomes a focus for the wider shots that follow, tempting viewers to focus on his feet when the characters onscreen also refrain from looking at Solomon.
Music is an important element in the film, with Solomon talented as a violinist. Slave songs are prominent. Music unites them in their hardship as they toil in the cotton fields, while they must also provide the music for the formal dancing of the “plantation class”. Hans Zimmer’s original score features his typical long strings and deep brass notes. It jars in some scenes, for example when Solomon is on the boat taking him down south before the music becomes integrated into the sound of the boat’s paddle wheel.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberpatch acquit themselves well in small roles, while Dano and Fassbender have more explosive parts. Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-born Kenyan actress, makes a stunning debut as Patsey.
But the film’s towering achievement is Chitwetel Ejiofor’s commanding performance as Solomon, probably his best to date. It’s a demanding role, aging over twelve years, his character undergoing arduous ordeals. McQueen’s decision to focus on Ejiofor’s expressive face to carry the weight of the film in its closing stages is a testament to his ability and conviction as he registers the horrors of the most brutal period in American history.
12 Years a Slave earned wide acclaim since premiering at the Telluride Film Festival last August, becoming the leading contender in this year’s Oscar race. Inspired by real events in America’s dark history, its story centres on continuing defiance and hope against terrible adversity. It’s solemn but a seriously good film.
15A (See IFCO for details)
12 Years a Slave is released on 10th January 2014