12 Years A Slave (2013)

The extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup

While we’ve all no doubt seen countless pictures about American slavery, from Quentin Tarantino’s comical Django Unchained (2012), to Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), none have been as impactful or as moving as director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, simply because there is a resounding honesty surrounding the entire project. An adaptation of the 1853 memoir 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup himself, the picture documents the incredible heart wrenching true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom.

Set in the pre-Civil War United States 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man who resides in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon works as a skilled carpenter and fiddle player and lives with his loving wife and two children. After two men offer Northup a two-week job as a musician, he sets off to work with the strangers but is later drugged and wakes up in chains. Northup is shortly sold off into slavery in New Orleans under the false name of Platt, the identity of a runaway slave from Georgia. After observing the fate of others in his situation, Northup decides that cooperation is the best way to survive. Sold by slave-trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup manages to stay on good terms with Ford, a relatively benevolent master. After Northup engineers a waterway for transporting logs swiftly and cost-effectively downstream, Ford presents him with a violin in gratitude. Things take a drastic turn when a racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) starts to resent Northup for his good work and begins to verbally harass him. Northup eventually fights back and Tibeats attempts to lynch him, but fails.

... expressionless, overworked slaves ...
… expressionless, overworked slaves …

Unable to protect Northup from Tibeats, Ford explains that Northup must be sold to the malevolent slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), to work in his cotton fields. There, Northup finds himself stuck in a living nightmare, as Epps believes it is his right to abuse and mistreat slaves as it is biblically sanctioned. Epps encourages his slaves to accept their allegedly predestined, divinely sanctioned fate by frequently reading them various pro-slavery Bible verses both real and fraudulent. For many years, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but also retain his dignity as he comes to terms with the harsh reality he finds himself trapped in.

Steve McQueen, who began his career creating music videos before directing full-length features, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), has an evident knack for utilizing long, steady single shots to emphasize various points within his work, in turn creating some very powerful imagery. McQueen uses this technique to produce several unflinching moments throughout the film forcing viewers to witness a number of horrific events, almost as if through the eyes of the ghost of a murdered slave, watching in sorrow and anger. Skillfully contrasting natural beauty with the ugliness of man, McQueen also generates an often, uncomfortable, atmosphere further emphasizing the grim reality of slavery in a way that’s never truly been depicted before. Although quite lengthy, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, U Turn (1997), present Solomon’s unforgettable odyssey in a sincere and heartbreaking way, illustrating not only how slavery damaged African Americans, but how it also affected those who profited by it; the feature doesn’t shy away from exposing the true horrors that took place within the institution of slavery, creating a powerful, heart wrenching picture and McQueen’s most accessible and compelling film to date.

This poor guy should at least be listening to Rednex's Cotton Eye Joe!
This poor guy should at least be listening to Rednex’s Cotton Eye Joe!

12 Years A Slave is anchored by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s, Children of Men (2006), remarkable Oscar worthy portrayal of Northup in quite simply one of the year’s best leading performances. As Solomon Northup is entrapped by the confines of slavery for the majority of the picture, he is unable to truly speak his mind throughout his ordeal, ergo Ejiofor is required to utilize his facial expression, predominantly his eyes, and body language to convey his emotions throughout the flick, resulting in a subtle, yet incredibly powerful piece of work. Ejiofor’s unforgettable final scene will surly strike a chord with most viewers and will no doubt earn him a spot beside today’s powerhouse performers. Lupita Nyong’o’s equally compelling performance as the slave Patsey is even more impressive, given that this is Lupita’s first major role in a motion picture. Patsey, who has become the object of Epps’ perverse affections, is tormented during her days as she is forced to endure Edwin’s merciless ‘love,’ the callous jealousy of his wife and the hard work she is required to repeatedly perform day in and day out. While Solomon refuses to break, Patsey has long been broken, having given up on life, she is consumed by unbearable sadness and her crushing situation is only heightened by Lupita’s tragic performance.

Michael Fassbender, who has worked with McQueen on both Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), gives one of the best performances of his already impressive career as the nasty slaver Edwin Epps. Fassbender’s depiction of this deeply flawed man, who abuses his absolute power over others, is truly remarkable as he molds a menacing and cruel persona whenever on screen creating one of the most loathsome film characters of 2013. Paul Giamatti, Sideways (2004), is excellent in his minor supporting role as slave-trader Theophilus Freeman and Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds (2009), who also produced the picture, is a welcome addition to the cast as Canadian carpenter and abolitionist, Bass, who eventually alters Northup’s life forever.

Not much of a home sweet home!
Not much of a home sweet home!

12 Years A Slave is an undeniably incredible piece of cinema but it certainly won’t appeal to everyone as its subject matter is a little tough for some to stomach. At the same time, McQueen uses extreme amounts of silence and long shots to convey his message, again, slightly hindering the film’s overall ‘entertainment’ value. Nevertheless, the picture is equally astonishing as it is tragic, making 12 Years A Slave essential viewing for anyone old enough to understand it.

4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

12 Years A Slave is released through Icon Film Distribution Australia