Drama / Films

12 Years a Slave

McQueen’s films are occasionally difficult to watch; taking an unflinching and quasi-documentary approach to their lurid, bordering on body-horror styled subject matter. Considering the director’s relative newcomer status, McQueen’s first two movies – 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame – garnered a huge amount of critical acclaim, with viewers praising McQueen’s measured directing and his mature tackling of difficult subjects; starvation and sex addiction respectively – whilst also admiring the crisp cinematography and brilliant acting from McQueen’s muse, Michael Fassbender. Post-Shame, McQueen was set up as a director to watch out for, and his latest movie – 12 Years A Slave – will go some way to cementing that view. It’s a gripping, uncompromised look into the American slave trade and a movie which has rightfully set the Oscars alight; a rare example of the Academy getting it right. 12 Years a Slave is the sort of movie everybody should have to see. 12 years a slave benedict cumberbatchThe film begins in 1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free negro who lives with his wife and children in New York. An accomplished fiddle-player, Solomon is invited by two well-spoken strangers to accompany them on a two week circus tour of Washington – a wonderful idea until Solomon is drugged and sold, illegally, into slavery. Finding himself working for Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Ford on a plantation in the deep South, Solomon keeps his intelligence hidden whilst working out a means to return home – though his situation is exasperated by Ford’s worker Tibeats (Paul Dano) who resents Solomon, inspiring a series of events which leaves Solomon under the ownership of cruel, semi-religious madman Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who owns a cotton farm in Louisiana. Epps is in love with one of his slavegirls –  Patesy (Lupita Nyong’o) – a fact which aggravates his wife (Sarah Paulson) and creates a lot of tension for Solomon and his fellow-slaves. Solomon keeps his head down, desperate to return to his family.12 years a slaveAmerica on the whole, is uncomfortable with the slave trade and its place within their history. As such, there haven’t been many films made about the subject. America generally avoids the conversation, whilst other countries don’t feel they have the right to approach it. Last year’s Django Unchained stands out as being refreshingly free of agenda, with Tarantino treating the material as exploitive and never serious; which to be fair, if you can do that with the Nazi Party, you can do it with the slave trade. The success of Tarantino’s movie probably went someway to getting Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir greenlit for production, though of course, McQueen’s approach is vastly different and we’re miles away from Django’s world here. 12 Years a Slave is a brutal and powerful movie, intense and unflinching in its matter of fact approach.12 years a slaveIn genre terms, the movie borders on horror – the ambiguous capture of Solomon, in which his world falls from freedom to chains and darkness in a flash – resembles an out-of-control nightmare; we feel the terror and inexplicable hopeless of Solomon’s situation; this shouldn’t happen, but we can’t stop it either. This tone is retained for the duration of the running time. McQueen’s movie is purposefully hard to watch, with an air of crushing despair and the feeling of facing insurmountable odds throughout. Scenes of mother’s being stripped of their children are almost unbearable, and there’s a horrific and extremely powerful sequence in which Solomon is left hanging from a tree whilst slaves go about their lives in the background, ignoring him and refusing to help. This sequence perhaps best represents the movie as a whole. McQueen holds this scene in one brutal long-shot for an inordinate amount of time, Solomon’s feet desperately grappling for ground as the noose tightens around his neck; we experience his pain and then some, and the feeling is made clear here that noone is in a position to help. A scene in which Solomon is forced to whip another slave is especially shocking – the whipping sequences are some of the most brutal ever put on screen, with the excellent sound design really capturing the blinding crack of leather on skin. At times, the audience will want to look away from this movie, though that’s never a criticism.12 years a slave patseyThe film never feels exploitive and is careful with its characters; the white slave owners tend to justify their actions to themselves, and so don’t come across as out-and-out monsters. There’s an element of human motivation within all of them. This is helped by the wonderful cast. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford, the first of the owners, is somewhat of a contradiction; a well-spoken New Orleans gentleman who respects Solomon for his intelligence and treats him well; though the movie does ask us to question this – if Ford is aware that the slave-industry is evil but accepts it as a way of life, does that make him worse than more overtly racist characters like Tibeats? It’s also interesting to note how McQueen underlays Ford’s Bible readings with the sounds of screaming, anguished mothers; contrast is used to great effect throughout the movie.12 years a slaveAs for the rest of the white cast, Paul Dano is becoming somewhat typecast for these ‘I’d love to punch him in the face roles’ but he plays the weasel so well;  Solomon is much smarter than Tibeats but must pretend not to be, and Dano’s unpleasant weasel serves to highlight Solomon’s frustrations. Michael Fassbender, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for this movie, once again proves himself to be one of the most accomplished actors working today. He’s a monster – all boozey and unpredictable, full of drunken rage, you get the sense he could snap over anything, at anytime, and there’s something terrifying about his wild-eyed fury. The theme of religious justification is taken further with Epps, with Fassbender’s character using the Bible to justify his actions and blaming the slaves for cotton worm epidemics – to Epps, these are God’s plagues, brought on by the incompetence of his workers. Epps’ denied but explicit love/lust for Patsey becomes a driving point to his character and keeps the narrative moving, with the ‘love triangle’ between himself, Patsey and his wife perhaps best representing the cruelty and malice of the slave owners, and the hopelessness of the slave’s situation. Sarah Paulson is a cold and nasty presence and plays the bitch very well, though again, her actions are justified in her eyes and born from jealously over her husband’s infidelities. Brad Pitt’s character is a little on-the-nose, but by the time he actually appears, the audience is so desperate for someone sane that’s he’s a very welcome figure, and stands as one of the few positive forces in the film.12 years a slaveChiwetel Ejiofor deserves all the praise for his performance. Solomon is a difficult role, and Ejiofor carefully portrays the character’s horror, hopes, and frustrations, often without a great deal of dialogue. There’s something so implicitly horrific about Solomon having to repress his intelligence in order to survive, and we really feel his love for his family, and his desperate attempts to reach them are heartbreaking; the final sequences are understated but beyond powerful. Through the black characters, McQueen explores different ways people survive – with Alfre Woodard’s matter of fact, coldly realistic housemistress standing as pragmatic practicality and Lupita Nyong’o’s brilliant Patsey, a girl at the end of her tether. A young and new actress, Nyong’o is unreal in this role – her plea to Solomon to kill her is a moral and emotional moment of hell and one of the strongest moments of the movie; and her final sequences counter the positivity of Solomon’s story and serve as a harsh reminder that not everyone – in fact barely anyone – manages to get out. Expect great things from this actress in future. sl9McQueen has once again teamed up with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and as such, 12 Years a Slave, in spite of its subject matter, is a rather beautiful movie to watch. The film is stripped from the kind of clichéd grime look which accompanies grim movies and instead we’re presented with a lush and sumptuous view of the South; rarely has the beauty of these states been portrayed so well on screen, the contrast between the setting and content serving to highlight the horrors of the movie. Hans Zimmer’s score is powerful, emotive and terrifying at times; a great deal is conveyed through music here and on a aesthetic level, 12 Years A Slave is a real treat for visuals and audio. The sing-song nature of the dialogue reflects the story’s literary roots and provides a heritage for the film, which when combined with the lush design and incredible sound, makes 12 Years A Slave a rather timeless movie. This is one which will stand the test of time.sl612 Years A Slave works on every level. It’s impeccably well directed and acted and tells a brutal and powerful story. It’s the sort of movie which deserves the audience’s full intention; a mature and important film and one that’s sure to be remembered for years to come. It’s likely to sweep the Oscars, and deservedly so. A powerful and uncompromising film and McQueen’s best yet.

9/10

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One thought on “12 Years a Slave

  1. Pingback: Are the Oscars a Joke? | Some Films and Stuff

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