So as we enter Oscar season it becomes clear that a certain kind of film begins to dominate our cinema screens. Movies that are aiming for one of those nice shiny statues are out in force in the UK and one of the pack leaders stands in the form of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. It’s a movie that tells the remarkable true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the early 1800’s. It was nominated for 9 awards by the Academy and has so far appeared to receive universal acclaim.
The story begins with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejifor) living as a free man in New York with his wife and two children. However, after agreeing to travel with a circus as a musician for two weeks he ends up waking up in chains and being sold into slavery. What follows is a tale of him adjusting to this new life and being swapped from slave owner to slave owner, all while trying to survive and cling on to the tiny fragment of hope he has of someday returning to his family.
It’s a truly incredible story and one that needs to be seen to understand. It’s also a truly incredible film ands a brutal portrayal of slavery, with McQueen doing nothing to hide that fact. There is one shot in particular which involves Solomon being hung up by a noose and forced to balance on his tiptoes to avoid being choked to death. At the point where many directors would have moved the cameras on McQueen holds it and then continues to hold it until the entire audience at the screening I attended were fidgeting with how horrible and uncomfortable they felt. All of this stands in horrifying contrast to the slaves in the background getting on with their day, cowed into submission and numb to such violence.
Chiwetel Ejiofor meanwhile is incredible as Solomon. It’s impossible not to want to fight alongside him as he tries everything in his power to get back to his family. Yes some of the speeches feel a little over the top and are probably not an accurate reflection of how humans beings speak to each other, but when they are delivered with such conviction it’s easy to ignore that. While Michael Fassbender is terrifying as the evil plantation owner, Edwin Epps, who’s complete lack of regard for his ‘property’ is chilling. Despite that he doesn’t even manage to be the most unsettling character in the film, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Ford filling that role. While Epps wears his evil on his sleeve, Ford acts like the loving owner, who treats his slave with a modicum of respect and reads to them from the bible. However, all of this hides a man just as bad as the rest. He twists the words of the bible to justify his actions and in reality never does anything for his slaves that doesn’t benefit him too.
If there is any criticism to be levelled, and it is nit picking, the fact it’s spread over 12 years is easy to forget. They don’t quite succeed in getting across that idea of time passing. While Brad Pitt’s appearance as Samuel Bass seems to be him channelling Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, as he comes in and makes a lot of pretty speeches before saving the day. I haven’t read the source material and I’m sure that Bass did play a major part in saving Solomon from his position, but it does lead to the ending feeling a little bit too neat.
These are however small issues within a breathtaking piece of cinema. It’s true this is a tough watch and you are unlikely to come out of it filled with joy, in fact I don’t think there’s a single laugh in the entire two hour running time, but it is an incredibly powerful watch and will deserve every single award it gets.