Horrible history – ★★★★½
Steve McQueen’s latest work is a horrible, horrible film. It tells the harrowing story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped and sold as a slave during the 1840s when being a black man, slave or not, made for one hell of a tough life.
Following his kidnapping, we spend a dozen years (that spoiler is in the title) with Northup, who is given the name of “Platt”, a runaway slave for who he is conveniently mistaken for. His old life was blessed with family, carpentry and even a bit of time for playing the violin but now he’s enduring slave pens, whippings, lengthy work days and physical acts that border on torture.
During his time as a slave he is sold between a variety of owners, most notably the benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and later the absolute animal of a man Edwin Epps, played by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender. Epps is fixated with a slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) but beats her due to frustrations with his bitch of a wife™ (Sarah Paulson).
The film plays like an old-style epic with an assortment of fine actors dipping in for brief, but meaningful, supporting roles – SNL’s Taran Killam, Scoot McNairy, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Alfre Woodard to name a few. While they’re all well and good, the plaudits all belong to Ejiofor. Many of this year’s awards season films have also centred on people trying desperately to get home – Gravity, Captain Philips, All is Lost – but none will leave you as angry and tense as the road that Northup is forced to take here. Ejiofor takes a remarkably dignified, almost repressed approach to the part without relying on any big “look at me I’m acting!” gestures or moments. It will be a great surprise if he doesn’t take home a slate of awards in the coming months.
As the opening line of the review noted, you’re not going to enjoy watching 12 Years a Slave. But like titles like McQueen’s feature debut Hunger (which dealt with the 1981 Northern Ireland hunger strikes) or Schindler’s List (the Holocaust) it is necessary viewing about a cruel, tough period of history.
The American CityArts critic Armond White came under fire for berating McQueen this past week, though if you ignore the disrespect shown in heckling McQueen from the audience at an awards show, he almost had a point in his original review in comparing the film to the unbearable sub-genre of “torture porn”. There are three of four scenes in the film which will make you physically ill, most notably a scene where Northup’s back is torn apart by whipping. It’s an unflinching take on things and means the film can’t really be considered to everyone’s taste. Whether the film could the story have worked on its own merits without these scenes is a question that only McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley could answer. I’d say that it just about pushes the limits of acceptability and can therefore be deemed a necessary evil.
A final word for the look and feel of the film. 12 Years a Slave was filmed on plantations in and around Louisiana in late summer 2012 and that production design, when added to the beautiful anamorphic 35mm cinematography of Sean Bobbitt, really drag the audience kicking and screaming into the Deep South and the horrible existence of life on the cotton farms as a slave in the mid-nineteenth century. Hats off to all.