12 Years A Slave is the story of a free black man from upstate New York, who is abducted and loses his freedom to pre-Civil War slavery. It is based on the true account of Solomon Northup (played by the incomparable Chiwetel Ejiofor) and documents his life before the tragic turn, and his years of abusive servitude through multiple masters. Solomon Northup is a calm family man who wants nothing more than to return home, but is held fast by obedience as his only means of survival.
Director Steve McQueen has mastered the art of holding your gaze on something you want more than anything to look away from. With only his third feature film, he has tackled one of the most difficult topics in American History – slavery, in its rawest form.
Solomon’s story is not one of a strong man being broken down, it is of a regular man adapting to his surroundings. He knows that he has been unlawfully detained, but his name is stripped from him immediately and to stay alive he must keep it, and his education, a secret. He puts his head down (with a few exceptions) and endures 12 long years with no end in sight. You feel such agony for him because he is not supposed to be a slave, he was born free! And then like a slap follows the thought – and what about the others? A female slave, Patsy played by Lupita Nyong’o, is born into that life and she has no promise of legal release. Her story is far sadder, and Solomon can only stand by impotently and watch it play out.
Knowing that Solomon will one day be free should come as a comfort, but McQueen doesn’t let the audience off that easily. Every tragic thing that happens to Solomon is witnessed in minute, unwavering detail. A particularly heart-breaking moment has you sit with him for minutes while he watches his last hope quite literally burn away. By the time he is close to release, his dread is stronger than any hope he could feel, and it threatens to choke you in sympathy.
As a side note, during a particularly brutal whipping scene a member of the audience walked out, crying that it was “pure sadism!” and “shame, shame on them!”. The rest of us were astounded – what on earth could she have possibly expected? It was brutal, yes, and hard to watch, yes – but impossibly harder to have lived through. To walk out just muffles the message, and shows there there is still a long way to go before some people are willing to face these horrors of the past.
After the film (and the standing ovation), the moderator asked McQueen to comment on the dearth of serious cinematic looks at slavery in recent years, and why he felt the need to make one now. His answer was that the first informed the second. Brad Pitt interrupted to say that it’s still such a hard subject to broach that it took a Brit (McQueen) to bring it up. That drew a laugh from the crowd, but also a sad sigh of agreement. The main cast was asked if it was difficult to work with the subject matter? They agreed that it was, but that it needed to be done.
I wish Michael Fassbender had said more on that point, because not since Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth has an actor so attractive to me worked so hard to make himself unrecognizably grotesque in spirit. He becomes the embodiment of willful cruelty in his character Epps (Solomon’s final master), and yet manages to play it with an almost childlike insecurity that evokes no sympathy but still lets you see humanity within. A friend commented that the true evil was Epps’ wife. “Racist Lady MacBeth” is how she very aptly put it. Her own insecurities play out onscreen in terrifying flights of violence, despite her controlled demeanor.
Benedict Cumberbatch had a slightly better time of it, as his character Ford. The first man to buy Soloman is clearly uncomfortable in the role of master and is quite kind. But in a way he is far worse than Epps, as he sees Soloman for the free man that he is, but is too weak to release him. Eventually to assuage his guilt Solomon is given over to Epps and his true torture begins.
The entire cast was a who’s-who of Big Names, but assembled brilliantly. Even producer Brad Pitt inserted himself as Soloman’s Canadian guardian angel. Hans Zimmer’s score is beautiful and nerve shredding and the care taken with the cinematography will leave you feeling exhausted. McQueens talents are on full display, and his skill as director has never been more apparent.
Walking out of the movie we felt like we’d been through a wringer, but it was completely worth it, to have witnessed something so powerful. Its not hard to predict big things for this film, and I’m looking forward to the crew walking away with all of the Oscars come awards season. It is not an entertaining film, it is painful and hard and cruel. But it is sweet and sad and a story that still needs to be told.
See all of our photos from the 12 Years a Slave Premiere