Written by John Ridley
Directed by Steve McQueen
USA and UK, 2013
In 1853, Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years A Slave, a story of how a black man born free in New York was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and for a dozen years worked on various plantations around Louisiana just before the American Civil War. Acclaimed British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen has now brought this extraordinary tale to the big screen, following his physically harrowing films Hunger and Shame, in what is more than a mere film but a cultural milestone in the representation of slavery, a major work that is spearing in its intensity, incandescent in its soul.
In what seems certain to be an Oscar-worthy performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor is Northup, a musician who foolishly embarks on a tour with two performers (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) while his wife and children relocate for her job for a few months. Awakening one morning after getting drunk or possibly being drugged, he finds himself in chains, the property of two brutal slavemasters who ignore his pleas of clemency, beat him, and shatter his spirit, before transporting him to Louisiana to become the property of the faintly benevolent plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After falling afoul of the cruel gangmaster John Tibeats (Paul Dano) Solomon is sold again to a truly horrendous excuse of a human being, the whiskey-soured Edwin Epps (a sulphurous Michael Fassbender). The horror of Solomon’s situation descends into unbearable plateaus of misery and suffering, compounded thanks to Epps’ wife Mary (a wraithful Sarah Paulson), a jealous cuckold who inflicts her cruelty onto her property with unconscionable inhumanity.
Certain scenes of this overwhelming, immensely powerful film cannot be forgotten: the images of naked slaves being considered and appraised in contrast to the luxurious decor and surroundings of the Louisiana gentry; or a centrepiece single long-take (one of McQueen’s trademark flourishes) of Solomon struggling for purchase in the mud with a noose circled around his fragile neck. 12 Years A Slave is unquestionably one of the most disturbing texts yet crafted that examines this horrendous chapter in US and European history, a Biblical recital simmering with a brimstone-tinged deep South gumbo. Fassbender avoids the single-note take of evil with his complex take on Epps, a creature so utterly divorced from notions of equality and mercy that Brad Pitt’s Abolitionist’s assertion that he must answer for his crimes in the great hereafter is simply incomprehensible to him. Across the board, the performances are incendiary and almighty, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o may well find herself with a golden statuette come February as the heartbreaking Patsey, Epps’ object of brutal affection on the plantation.
McQueen brings forth his fascination with the twilight gulfs between the physical body and our seething spirits, the enslaved shells brimming with a spiritual charge. Given the grievous subject matter, the casually distressing violence is restrained and controlled, making one crescendo that approaches with the certainty of a distant cyclone all the more stomach-curdling and horrifying when it finally erupts, in one of the most grueling and draining scenes of recent memory. Hans Zimmer’s industrial, clanking score reinforces the sense of this historical blight as a commerce-driven activity, a status quo riveted with all the faceless cruelty of the free market, before yielding to soaring, lyrical overtures, as resolute tears stream down Solomon’s incorrigibly etched face. 12 Years A Slave is a milestone work, maybe a masterpiece despite some obsequious yielding to Hollywood conventions in its closing moments, a testament to our shared shame and the human capacity of endurance.
— John McEntee