This review contains minor spoilers
Every so often a time comes around, where the Oscars are given an opportunity to make history. They are given the chance to show that their input actually has discernible value. If the Oscars have any sense of decency, both humanly and cinematically, then 12 Years a Slave will win Best Picture (and pretty much everything else it is nominated in). So, will this be the year that the Oscars finally get it right? I hope so, because it’s been a long time since we have had such a deserving winner. Out of the candidates I have seen – I haven’t seen Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club and Her, the latter two have not even been released in England yet – it is head and shoulders above them.
Based on the real life 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, a free man of colour in the North of America, who is tricked and sold into slavery. Initially he is owned by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who, by slavers standards, seems relatively nice. He is then sold onto Edwin Epps, a malevolent and vicious plantation owner. From there, he must lay low and try to regain his freedom.
The depiction of violence in the film is truly horrifying and director Steve McQueen does not shy away from the brutality of the macro events, but the real terror derives from the micro acts of cruelty. You get a real physical sense of the day to day traumas that black slaves were subject to. For example when one woman is separated from her child she is told to work hard and soon she will forget them. The film is a little over two hours (134 mins) yet a lot of that running time shows the daily life of Solomon’s existence. The brutality is persistent and there seems to be no hope in sight.
This is not to say that the large scale acts are incidental, to the contrary they are integral to the drama. There is one scene where after a scrap with Tibeats (played by the ever brilliant and underestimated Paul Dano) Solomon is hanged, but Dano is chased away by his superiors, but rather than cut Solomon down he is just left there, and the camera has an awkwardly long shot of Solomon on his tip toes trying to not to choke or break his neck. There are many more examples of McQueen’s lingering camera work, he does not try to minimise the violence by cutting away during the bad bits, and instead there is an up close and personal style that forces confrontation. It is not “torture porn” as one (admittedly contrarian) critic called it, you could only call it that if you periodically fell asleep and only woke to someone being hit then falling asleep again. Yes, the violence is relentless, but the relentlessness of it is there to demonstrate the perpetual nightmarish existence slaves had. Every image in the film is there contribute to McQueen’s rigorous and unwavering aesthetic.
This attitude to violence is not new to McQueen though. All three of his feature length films seem to focus on subjugation on some level. Hunger is about the awful conditions of Irish nationalist during the Thatcher years as well as being about a Hunger strike, depraving the body of food. Shame is about sex addiction in modern life and 12 Years a Slave is about a complete failure in society and humanity. They are all about the physical punishment and more covertly, mental punishment.
Narratively, and physically, this film is claustrophobic. Through the framing of the camera we feel Solomon’s suffocation through subjugation and with the cinematography you can practically smell the stench of slavery, and the unsavoury personalities of some of the characters. Even in his free life we see glimpses of gross racial inequality, it’s even handed in this way. It would’ve been the easy way out to show the North as good and the South as bad.
Although Solomon lives in a vast open plantation, it feels small and restrictive. There’s only one section of the film where McQueen allows himself to show us natural beauty that is reminiscent of some Terrence Malick films (namely The Thin Red Line), but after that short interlude we are thrown back into the claustrophobic environment thus serving as a counterpoint to the horror. Dramatically, these subtle effects put us in the shoes of Solomon and help us believe in his predicament.
Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a white slaver owner, however he treats his slaves (particularly Solomon) with a little more humanity than one would expect. So, he seemingly has a conscience but is he actually more culpable than Epps? He knows that he is committing sin (touch on religion later) but willingly does it anyway. You can see the awkwardness during his bizarre bible readings to the slaves, where one woman (whom he separated from her children) is crying; he looks up and notices her, but carries on anyway. He is still morally culpable for not having the strengths of his convictions.
After being sold to Epps (Fassbender), Ford can be seen as pretty benign in comparison. Epps is vicious, volatile and relentlessly malicious. We are introduced to him through an extreme close up while he cherry picks passages from the bible to justify his abhorrent actions. We learn of Epps’ duality though, he is a conflicted soul. On the one hand he sees slaves purely as property, but on the other he falls for one of his female slaves called Patsy.
He is full of contradictions and conflicts. His beard is trimmed, but also erratic; his clothes are of high class, yet are more often than not they are ragged; he talks of the dangers of sin, yet rapes Patsy. His conflictions are almost always expressed through sadistic beatings and bursts of barbarism. He is terrifying, powerful and heartless in an unfathomable way.
Perfectly acted by Fassbender, showing that he is one the, if not the most, talented actors of the current generation. When Brad Pitt’s character shows up (an odd inclusion) it gets quite embarrassing for Pitt as Fassbender runs acting rings round him. It’s a great – as McQueen calls it- “meat and potatoes acting” scene. Fassbender is surely a shoe in for best supporting actor, as is Lupita Nyong’o.
And then we arrive at the titanic performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor. Like Epps, Solomon (once sold into slavery) is a character of great internal conflict. It is a performance that requires him show restraint, restraint from exposing his literacy and intelligence. It is remarkable how well composed and suppressed Solomon is, even more so when you consider the anger that slavery evokes. The camera often just lingers of Ejiofor’s face for uncomfortable periods of time and this is all we need. No big, dramatic, sweeping scores to tell us how to feel. We feel is through Ejiofor’s performance, it’s master class in physical understatement. All in all, performances are top notch across the board.
Speaking of the score, it is an unusually minimalistic score from Hans Zimmer. Gone are the beating drums and cadences of texture, instead we have a largely and fittingly string based soundtrack. It’s slow and used sparingly by McQueen, who prefers to not be dominated by score. McQueen has already demonstrated his ear for the effective use of music (think of the concert scene in Shame).
Music does play a large role in the film, Solomon is a violinist. It is what allows himself to embed himself in white culture but it also the instigator for his capture. When given a violin by slavers, at first he treats it as a relic of his old life, but as time goes on he is instructed to play a fiddle and that moment his humanity is tested. Symbolically, he breaks his violin towards the end in order to not be subjected to torturous reminders to his free life.
McQueen has opened the debate about slavery in an unprecedented way, make no mistake; we are leagues away from Quentin Tarantino’s comparatively naïve Django Unchained. 12 Years a Slave goes beyond just talking about slavery though; McQueen desired that discussion is not just about race (and purported “white guilt bait” as some have called it). Something rather astonishing about this, for me, was that this is pretty recent history – to put it in perspective, less that hundred years after the novel was published, the Second World War broke out and we got Anne Frank’s now seminal diary. The humbling thing about this film though, is that no one person tries to be above the subject matter. This is reflected in the eclectic nationality of the cast, it’s a testament to McQueen recognition of not just American recognition, but worldwide recognition of it.
12 Years a Slave confirms McQueen’s position as Britain’s premier filmmaker. It is a transcendent film of phenomenal importance to our history as a species and the enormous depths of depravity we are willing to descend to in order to gain power over our fellow human beings.