12 Years a Slave (2013)


12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is kidnapped after being lured from his home in New York, and sold into slavery across several plantations in Louisiana. There he endures many hardships, not least his total loss of freedom, but both bears witness to, and is subjected to, the horrendous maltreatment typical for slaves in the era.

Halfway through 12 Years a Slave you may catch yourself wondering why you decided to watch Steve McQueen's period drama. There is nothing entertaining to see here, certainly nothing light-hearted, but still you find yourself gripped, rooting for the man whose liberties were so cruelly removed from him.

As if to reinforce this mood of tragedy, McQueen opts to open with a flashforward, when we see Solomon at his lowest. We are never given the opportunity to know him pre-slavery before we see him post-kidnapping, and never afforded to understand the moments of happiness before we see the pits of despair.

This misery continues. Midway through, in what is arguably the most harrowing in a series of harrowing scenes, Solomon is left hanging, no-one daring to show the slightest compassion lest they end up with the same punishment. And the kicker is, there is no real happy ending, not really. Just a distressing reminder of lost time.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is charged with bringing Solomon's story to life. In what is likely to be his career-defining role, for which he unfortunately didn't win the Oscar - thanks to a particularly competitive year which included Matthew McConaughey's role in Dallas Buyer's Club - Ejiofor portrays Solomon as a man who is never accepting of his new life, but also unable to speak up. Rarely has a man said so little with such much power.

While Ejiofor's portrayal of Solomon leaves its audience in stunned silence for most of the film, broken only by - very occasional - fleeting glimpses of heart-wrenching tears, he has a supporting cast of the highest quality. Lupita Nyong'o - who won Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars - as fellow slave Patsey conveys the true brutality received by slaves. Benedict Cumberbatch shows a caring but complicit slave owner, Michael Fassbender plays a ruthless and sadistic slave owner, while Brad Pitt makes a cameo as a sympathetic Canadian.

It isn't entertaining, and neither is it meant to be. It is brutal and stark; nothing is dressed up to impress Hollywood, it is a film to simply simply do Northup's original memoir a true justice.

5 stars

Comments

  1. A decent and worthy film about the everyday indignities of slavery.

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