It’s almost impossible to put into words exactly what it is that 12 Years a Slave does to the unsuspecting audience. No amount of hyped adulations or warnings about the brutality can prepare you for the unflinching account that you are presented with. It is cinema as you rarely see it, an artistic depiction of a story that is truthful and powerfully so.
This film is Steve McQueen’s third, and sees the return of muse Michael Fassbender, for what has now proven to be a visceral trilogy of collaborations. In keeping with the McQueen we know, the focus is as always on the human aspects, despite the wider backdrop of political and social upheaval. This is still a Steve McQueen film but scaled up; it has a wider lens on it, but is still, thankfully, just as intense.
Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave is the horrific ordeal of a free man who is kidnapped, torn from his family and sold into slavery. After a time spent with Benedict Cumberbatch’s ambiguously benign plantation owner, Solomon, now stripped of his identity and renamed Platt, is sold on to Epps; a considerably more brutal master to say the least. The screenplay for this film, penned by John Ridley, is fantastic, true storytelling. It is remarkable for its mature and controlled approach to slavery, which mirrors Solomon’s own suppression that is the key to his survival. The result being far more effective than if it had become a hysterical drama.
The film was full of the single shot takes that we have seen in McQueen’s work before, rather than fast-pace action sequences, the camera lingers and this is where it pulls in the emotional weight. 12 Years a Slave manages to create something that makes you feel that you are truly engrossed in someone’s life, rather than watching as a detached observer. Similarly, with a Hans Zimmer score, you cannot help but fall head first into this world. The music in this film is so evocative and there is a lot of emphasis placed on it, as a free man Solomon was a violinist and throughout the film uses music as an escape from the horrors around him.
There is a point in 12 Years a Slave, where the slaves sing a graveside rendition of Roll, Jordan, Roll, and after a hesitant start, Chiwetel Ejifor, playing Solomon, joins in. It is an incredibly powerful moment during which the camera lingers on Ejifor’s face for the duration of the song. This is common throughout the film and it is Ejifor’s face and body which are key to the role. It is a physically demanding performance and he is stunningly good in it. Changing physically from beginning to end, he carries the audience with him every step of the way and we feel everything. All the performances in this film are excellent, and Lupita Nyong’o’s screen debut as Patsi, the unfortunate object of Epp’s attentions and desires marks her out as a rising star.
Fassbender has always been excellent under McQueen’s direction, and their third film together is no different. This time taking on the role not of the protagonist, but what would be labelled the ‘villain’. Fassbender is undeniably brilliant as Edwin Epps, a man who is a mixing pot of emotions with manic anger constantly just bubbling under the surface, and at times boiling over. But what is remarkable about the performance is Fassbender’s ability to bring out the humanity in him. Epps is a terrifying man, but he is a human being and this only makes his cruelty towards the slaves more chilling.
In 12 Years a Slave the Turner prize winning director reminds us that film can be art. That cinema should be this simple act of storytelling, which is emotionally effective because of what we see on screen. In every way possible this film is breathtaking. It is an all-encompassing tale of the importance of justice, human survival, and freedom. Words are not enough when it comes to 12 Years a Slave; it is, as cinema should be, something you have to see for yourself.