12 Years a Slave

It would be difficult to imagine that this powerful film will not win most of the major categories, says Howard in his film review.

Cert (UK): 15

Runtime: 133 mins

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson 

Rating *****        

Ten BAFTA nominations, possibly as many again when the Oscars come around and having now seen most of the leading contenders, it would be difficult to imagine that this powerful film will not win most of the major awards.

Naively, I thought I must have seen films before about slavery, vaguely recalling Steven Spielbergs Amistad and a few others, but they all pale in comparison to this gruelling encounter with life in the deep south of America; if one imagines this is dressed up for cinema what were the horrors these people endured really like? Nevertheless, this movie takes us as close as we could reasonably expect to get to the daily fear, barbarism, drudgery and deprivation that constituted a slaves existence before the American Civil War.

The film is an adaptation of the memoirs of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejofor, a black American living in Saratoga in New York State as a free man, with a reputation as a musician and a loving family. Northup was kidnapped, taken south and sold to the owner of a Louisiana plantation in 1841. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s  performance is quite remarkable with some long lingering facial shots replacing dialogue as he contemplates the fate that gradually befalls him and the horrors he both witnesses and directly experiences as his predicament appears to grow ever more hopeless. The comfortable life style he is used to is shattered quite early on in the film, when he finds himself chained up in a dark cell within sight of the centre of Washington. It is here that he receives the first of some brutal beatings, which are repeated at regular intervals during the film. Some of the scenes are quite shocking and difficult to view; I really struggled to keep watching the whipping that Patsy receives towards the end of the film, both in terms of its length and abject cruelty.

Solomon is taken by boat to New Orleans, where Paul Giamatti, playing a smart slave trader provides him with his slave name, Platt, and then sells him to Ford, a plantation owner who seems to have some moral fibre, but who is ultimately challenged by the environment and mindset of those around him.

Under Ford’s ownership, Solomon tries to make the best of a poor situation, but comes up against an overseer played by Paul Dano, who seems to be adept at playing  creepy characters’ we take an instant dislike to, as was the case in his last film The Prisoners. Ultimately Dano attempts to lynch Solomon but fails and its here that I think the scene will be the one I recall from this film, as Solomon is left hanging from the branch of a cypress tree, his tiptoes slipping in the mud, his head and throat stretched upwards by the noose as he struggles to breath and cling to life. Behind him, increasingly the plantation comes to life as the other slaves go about their daily business, they have no hope, any thought of resistance or saving Solomon’s life is one that is beyond their contemplation, but the scene is just so well delivered as the camera always keeps Solomon in focus,the shot being held for what seems an eternity as this poor man tries to avoid the noose tightening to a point where his life will be extinguished.

Solomon finds his way into the ownership of a cotton plantation owned by Epps, brilliantly played by Michael Fassbender, who depicts a man obsessed with one of his own slaves, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o making her film debut). Once again during this section of the movie,  McQueen stages an even longer single-shot scene as Patsy receives a terrible flogging at the hands of Epps who hands the whip to Solomon, surely marking his total demise from the educated and refined life he once knew.

Is this film a masterpiece, well it may well be, the backdrop of  Louisiana is brought to life with some beautiful images and these contrast with the anguish being felt by so many of its inhabitants. The performances are in the main stunning, if there is a slight niggle it is the fleeting appearance of so many stars and familiar faces, but those of Ejiofor and Fassbender are startling good. Yes it is brutal, but McQueen really tries to bring us close to this true story and the way of life that dominated so much of America at that time. Definitely go and see this movie, even though you may need to turn away or watch through your fingers.

Written by Howard Groves

(12 Years A Slave is available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray)

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