Review: 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2014)

Slavery – a fragile and delicate theme when portrayed in the form of art or literature, and its story one of complete brutality. The horrific nature of the issue is what makes it incredibly tough to adapt into a compelling story without adding some sort of genre spin, such as Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation picture Django Unchained last year. But then along comes 12 Years a Slave, the third feature film by British director Steve McQueen, with possibly one of the most harrowing, brutal, yet utterly compelling slavery stories ever told.

The film is an accurate and incredibly faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African-American citizen of New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans, firstly to the shy, withdrawn plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless, crazed and religiously extreme planter.

McQueen’s previous two films, Hunger and Shame, boldly introduced us to a most promising filmmaker, a man unafraid to tell disturbing stories of such harrowing nature, and if there were any doubters of this talent, they will be swept clean by 12 Years a Slave. Any tale of slavery will be a tough watch, but it’s evident that McQueen is both unafraid and not ashamed for his film to be this way. The film will break a lot of hearts, force a lot of viewers to look away, and take pride in doing so. McQueen’s direction is assured and unflinching, refusing to simply brush over the terrible things that occurred, but paint the most vivid picture possible. This is a film which begins with a man being drugged, chained up and beaten with a wooden plank until it shatters, and builds up from that. This is a film that spends a good five minutes showing a man hanging by his neck, covered in stench and barely breathing, while life carries on as normal around him. McQueen’s abrasive, unflinching and focused scenes prove to be essential in the film’s success; it enables the horrors to come into play and performances to shine even brighter.

It goes without saying that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work in the title role as Northup is one of utmost brilliance. Tears and emotional breakdowns are aplenty, but what Ejiofor does best is convey a man who is furious, confused and in utter disarray as to why these awful things have been done to him. What is most heartbreaking to witness is how he is forced to hide all of these emotions within himself, knowing the abuse he’d receive if he were to speak his mind. Occasionally he loses it, such as in his heated encounter with the immature tyrant Paul Dano; however, it is the rarity of these moments that make them all the more poignant. Fassbender’s Epps is a completely different story, a man who can barely contain his rage and contorted outbursts. Believing that it is biblically sanctioned to beat slaves, Epps releases his fury on any slave who even hints at challenging him, with his preferred methods being forced whipping and rape. A disgusting and cruel character, executed brilliantly, Fassbender buries himself in the role, and is to be greatly respected for bravely taking on the role of such a tasteless human being. Big screen newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, playing a slave who is a victim to some of Epps’ most horrific assaults, provides a staggering portrayal of suffering to the extreme, and gives the same impression Barkhad Abdi did when first appearing on screen in Captain Phillips – an incredible talent discovered and incredible talent to watch.

The musical score, composed by Hans Zimmer, may not at first feel completely appropriate for such a film, but moulds itself well into the proceedings. The most impressive use of music in the film is in fact the songs the slaves sing when they are out in the fields picking wool and when they are celebrating what it means to be alive at fellow slaves’ burials, scenes which are incredibly visceral and hard hitting.

12 Years a Slave is a near masterpiece – a truly phenomenal story of such a distressing tragedy, boasting dynamic performances and some of the most confident and bold direction from Steve McQueen. It’s award season, and this will almost certainly be sweeping the Best Picture category across the board, along with hopefully many other awards. If you see one film or make one cinema visit this year, make this your choice. If you can endure the rough surface, there lies some remarkable depth beneath.


Ellis Whitehouse