12 Years a Slave
While it is not the role of critics to tell people which films to see and which to avoid (audiences make those decisions for themselves), let me begin by saying that if you have any interest in cinema – or, for that matter, in art, economics, politics, drama, literature or history – then you need to watch 12 Years a Slave. If, as now seems possible, this very powerful film from British director Steve McQueen achieves a clean sweep in the forthcoming best picture categories, it will be a rare example of awards ceremonies getting it right.
That McQueen may be on the verge of becoming not only the first black film-maker to win an Oscar for best director, but the first to do so while in possession of a Turner prize, lends enough historical precedent to merit your attention. But more important is the reward of seeing an artist using the medium of film for its highest purposes: to elevate, educate and ultimately ennoble the viewer by presenting them with something that is visceral, truthful and electrifyingly “real”.
Based on the 19th-century memoir of Solomon Northup (adapted here by screenwriter John Ridley), 12 Years a Slave follows the tribulations of an educated carpenter, musician and family man from New York state who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south – a shockingly common phenomenon. Stripped of his past, his identity and even (in the eyes of the law) his humanity, the renamed “Platt” becomes the property of plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose comparatively benign and sympathetic demeanour belies his slaver status. But after incurring the ire of sadistic farmhand Tibeats (Paul Dano), “Platt” is sold down the river to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a broiling cauldron of psychotic rage whose desire for slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) appears to be pushing him ever further into an abyss of uncontrollable cruelty.
Despite McQueen’s repeated assertion that he has no distinct “style” (the functional marriage of form and content is everything), critics have identified recurring tropes in his feature films, such as the audaciously lengthy single takes of Hunger (the priest/prisoner interview) and Shame (Sissy’s song), which appear talismanic. At a deeper level, there’s a consistent interest in the punishment of the flesh that dates back to his early moving-picture projects (the wrestling/teasing of Bear) and underwrites each of his three feature films, in which bodies are variously starved, entangled and beaten in obliterating fashion. The stench of hanging and flogging that drifts in the steamy Louisiana air of 12 Years a Slave makes watching occasionally unbearable – I looked away more than once; not a criticism (we are worlds away from the exploitational tones of Django Unchained), more an acknowledgement of the film’s awful raw power. One sequence in which Northup is strung up like some strange fruit from a tree while life on the plantation ambles on around him achieves a surreal intensity that recalls the haunting poetry of Terrence Malick’s existential war movie The Thin Red Line.
More significant still is the role of music (composer Hans Zimmer earned one of the film’s 10 Bafta nominations this week), with McQueen building upon the experiments of Shame to explore further the dramatic depths of song. Solomon is a musician; it’s his accomplished fiddle playing that, ironically, facilitates his capture and later leads him into the slavers’ homes, where his fellows must sing for their supper while weathering violent “domestic” abuse. Elsewhere, a striking counterpoint is established between Paul Dano’s weaselly, taunting rendition of Run Nigger, Run and the slaves’ defiant graveside rendition of Roll Jordan, Roll, the latter becoming an epiphanic moment that pierces to the very heart of Northup’s predicament.
The key to Solomon’s existence is the suppression of his rage – he must feign illiteracy and subservience to survive – and it’s notable that for all the anger and shame that the film stirs up about recent history, McQueen remains exceptionally even-handed and controlled in his treatment of all the key players, black and white alike. While Cumberbatch’s Ford displays the trappings of civility (are his actions worse because he has an inkling of the slaves’ humanity?), Fassbender has said that his way into Epps’s heart of darkness was to understand that he “loves Patsey”, the young woman whose body and soul he torments with fearsome self-loathing. In this key role, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation, quite the most bold feature debut by an actress in recent memory, her performance fiery, fragile and fiercely proud.
As for Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was initially hesitant about donning the mantle of Northup, he is nothing short of magnificent. Having made his big-screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s flawed but earnest Amistad in 1997, Ejiofor has turned his hand to romantic comedy (Love Actually, Melinda and Melinda), earthy drama (Dirty Pretty Things, American Gangster), fantastical science-fiction (Serenity, Children of Men) and even offbeat campy quirk (Kinky Boots) with confidence and agility.
Here, in a role that requires precise wordless expression (McQueen lingers long and often upon the face that becomes his clearest storytelling tool), Ejiofor proves himself a master of physical understatement, the clench of his teeth and slightest parting of the lips speaking volumes. His stance, too (from upright to bowed and beyond), is crucial, with Patricia Norris’s costumes adding both mood and verisimilitude, while Sean Bobbitt’s camera captures both the antebellum landscape beauty and horrifying human tragedy of the south, aided by very handsome production design.
12 Years a Slave is not an easy watch and nor should it be. But with the exception of a somewhat distracting third-act cameo by co-producer Brad Pitt, it is pitched pretty near perfectly in terms of sheer narrative craftsmanship. This is an important story, told with passion, conviction and grace. See it now.