12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley (screenplay) Solomon Northup (book)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o
Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) isn’t exactly known for cranking out uplifting fare, and 12 Years a Slave is no exception. Despite its bleak subject matter, it’s a phenomenal film. He was the perfect director for bringing the disturbing subject matter to the screen. Slave is superbly directed and acted. It’s also very, very upsetting to watch. I’ve never felt white guilt to the extent I did after watching this (unfortunately probably very accurate) depiction of slavery.
12 Years a Slave is based on the remarkable true story of Solomon Northup, an educated, free black man living in New York in the 1840s. He has a wife and two children, and appears to be making a fine living as a musician, enjoying the spoils of being part of the elite New York social circles. He’s clearly well respected and well liked within his community. Northup gets invited to go on a two-week tour with a traveling circus, and accepts the offer. All is well and good until one night he falls ill after imbibing some wine at dinner with his recruiters. He wakes up disoriented and hobbled by shackles. And thus his nightmare begins.
Northup is trafficked into slavery, along with the other occupants of a boat. They are forced to strip and line up like cattle as potential buyers inspect them for purchase. Northup then faces his plight as a slave, being traded and sold to a succession of slave owners for 12 years. Some are kind, but most are sadistic in their handling of slaves. It’s absolutely horrific to see what kinds of atrocities these men and women endure. We’ve seen many films gently skirt around the issue (most recently The Butler), but this is the real deal. McQueen doesn’t hold back in his portrayal of slavery. It’s a very visceral film – floggings, hangings, torture and rape are frequently on display. I actually had nightmares about one particular scene. And if the n-word makes you squirm, you’ll be beside yourself by the end of the movie.
McQueen does some interesting things throughout the narrative. He’s already shown he can direct a very stylized film. He juxtaposes a nasty song repeating “Run N****r Run” against the backdrop of a church service to great affect. A particularly harrowing scene shows Northup hanging from a tree standing on his toes for hours at end. Meanwhile life resumes as normal on the plantation. Children are laughing and playing right behind him as he struggles for his life. No one gives him a second thought – it’s just business as usual. McQueen also focuses on the seedy relationship between slave owners and some of their prized female slaves who are forced to endure the unwanted advances of their owners.
The performances are amazing; though Michael Fassbender’s character is so sadistic it almost seems cartoonish. Chiwetel Ejiofor is astounding, and if there’s any justice come Oscar time, he should be a shoo-in for best actor. I fear the movie might be too dark to win Best Director and Best Picture, although it deserves both accolades. The supporting cast includes Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson (chilling), Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt.
Slave is a tough watch, and definitely falls into the misery porn classification. However, despite the horrors Northup has to endure, he never lets his spirit break, a truly remarkable feat. His mantra is “I don’t want to survive, I want to live”. Though he comes close to the breaking point time and time again, he clings to that philosophy. For those interested in an unflinching peek into a dark chapter in America’s history, this is an absolute must see. – Shannon