22 September 2013
This article is a review of 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
Seen at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013. Winner of the Audience Award. (For more information, click here.)
“Your story is amazing, and no good way,” Bass (Brad Pitt)
Works of outstanding artistry rarely occur. 12 YEARS A SLAVE, once watched, sears itself into your psyche. A brutal cinematic event, burning with ire, demanding the audience connects. Director Steve McQueen and his team have hewn a cogent reminder, if any were ever required, of the sheer depths that humanity can plumb in its treatment of fellow citizens.
There must be something in the air. Over the last nine months, the following have also tackled slavery:
- DJANGO UNCHAINED
- CLOUD ATLAS
THE BUTLER and MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, in addition, concern civil rights based on race. A heady year in cinema.
Based on the true story, 12 YEARS A SLAVE opens on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and others in forced servitude cutting sugar cane. That evening he tries to write a letter in resourceful desperation with raspberry juice. We are then taken back to 1841 Saratoga Springs, New York. Northrup’s situation is very different. A cultured, family man and a sought-after violinist, he was born free. Two men are introduced (one played by Scoot McNairy) offering a generous wage to play in Washington. Their motives are of the conniving variety. Incapacitating him, they place him in the hands of slave traders, where the stomach-churning sadism begins and does not let up for the near 133 minute runtime. The savagery comes in many forms. And the sliver of balm is the unbreakable spirit of the Northup. Ejiofor is excellent.
Shipped to the South of the country, a portrait of what it was to have been an American slave is viscerally constructed. The heart is in the mouth for those stripped of freedom. Immediately a family is separated and heartbreakingly sold to different owners. Northup himself becomes the property of the relatively benign William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He had been warned by fellow passengers (including a cameo from Michael Kenneth Williams), on the voyage, not to reveal his ability to read and write; knowledge of such education will lead to his immediate death. Once on Ford’s plantation Solomon’s intelligence impresses the landowner, but causes the latter to rub up against brainless overseer, John Tibeats (Paul Dano). Almost killed, Northup is sold on to an epitome of mercilessness, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), known as “a breaker” of slaves. Fassbender subsumes himself as usual. Time just passes. We are not given the salve of seeing years ticked off. When death might be viewed as a mercy, such a notion can give you an idea of the levels of punishment and humiliation. Dread pervades, taking proceedings beyond any kind of genre scales (horror, action, thriller) – 12 YEARS A SLAVE is in a league of its own.
Sophisticated. Brutal. Artful. Important. Horrendous. Mesmerising. Eviscerating. Coruscating.