Steve McQueen is a talent who has only grown with each film that he has produced. With only three features under his belt, McQueen can quite safely be regarded as one of the great director’s of contemporary cinema, tackling dark chapters of human history and exploring warped corners of the human mind. 12 Years a Slave finds the director at his most accessible following from Hunger and Shame, but is still a film of incredibly potent emotion and disturbing imagery. It is also one of the most beautiful pictures of recent memory which both installs hope in the persistence of the human spirit and provokes disgust at the evils that human beings have been (and are) capable of.
Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave brings to life the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A freeman living in a pre-Civil War New York, Solomon lived a happy and respectful life with his wife and two children. After being deceived and poisoned, Solomon found himself sold into slavery. The film charts his 12 years as a slave, moving from the ownership of the conflicted Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), to the claws of the despicable Mr. Epp’s (Michael Fassbender) who treats his ‘property’ in anyway he so desires. All the while Solomon waits for the opportunity to seek his freedom, an opportunity which proves rather hard to come by.
Solomon’s journey is told from a distance; McQueen makes us fully aware that we are spectators to an event which has come to pass and are powerless to intervene. The way in which the camera pushes through the surroundings creates the impression that we are sneaking a glimpse at a moment in history that we may not wish to embrace, yet we still approach with cautious curiosity. We are witnessing a man’s struggle to negotiate a world that he was never supposed to inhabit, with McQueen making us pay special attention to Solomon’s reactions and expressions within certain scenes. These emotions range from anger, to restraint, to passivity, as he merely acts as he needs to in order to survive his ordeal. The power of these scenes, both the more emotive and more quiet scenes are given a greater sense of fragility and tragedy through the amazingly expressive eyes of Ejiofor.
Ejiofor delivers a performance that has moments of Oscar friendly outbursts, but remains largely restrained as he continues to survive and endure. Ejiofor has always been an incredibly generous actor, predominantly serving in a supporting capacity throughout his career, providing a strong and steady act for the lead performers to work against. He always presents other actor’s a challenge and has at many a time threatened to over-shadow lead actors with his undeniable talent. In a lead capacity here, he is finally given the role that should seem him shoot to leading man status, whilst also still maintaining his generosity as a performer.
Ejiofor shares the screen with a plethora of talent, with many faces appearing over the course of the story, with some ultimately being under used. Paul Giamatti occupies our attention for the best part of five minutes as a sniveling slave dealer, while Cumberbatch adds a touch of moral complexity in his brief but interesting role. Brad Pitt proves to be somewhat of a distracting presence in the film’s final moments, but certainly does not derail the picture. The two highlights of the supporting performances are in the form of newcomer Lupita Nyong’o and everyone”s favourite half-Irish half-German Michael Fassbender. Nyong’o as young slave Patsy adds a fresh sense of vulnerability and tragedy to Solomon’s story, a reflection and an embodiment of an individual who is in a much worse position than himself. It is a very raw performance made all the more powerful by Nyong’o being an unknown. Fassbender meanwhile plays an utterly ugly example of a human being. Yet, he manages to bring such pathos and complexity to Epps in his performance that exceeds beyond that of being merely the villain of the piece. He is a human being, not one we like, but one none the less. His attitude towards religion and his belief that it gives him justification to treat his ‘property’ as he so chooses allows Fassbender to develop a man powered by utter conviction in his beliefs. He is a volatile and ferocious presence, but also incredibly thought provoking.
America is a beautiful place. McQueen knows this, and makes full use of the natural beauty of America’s Southern States. He uses these luscious backdrops as the theatre for displaying one of the darkest chapters in human history. Hunger and Shame certainly pulled no punches with their visceral violence and shocking imagery, and 12 Years is no different, featuring some violent scenes of a distressing order. Shocking, but necessary to highlight the ferocity and brutal behavior of the slave owners. It is not the violence that affects the most though, it is the pure human emotion and artistry on display that affect most greatly. Even the coldest of hearts will find it hard not to be moved to tears in the final moments of the film’s climax. You’d be forgiven for thinking that only 12 months had passed, rather than 12 years, which adds a great deal of shock in the last scenes as it becomes clear quite how long Solomon has been subjected to such pain, sorrow, and hardship.
To say this is McQueen’s best film is not particularly fair or just to his two previous features which are pieces of fine art in and of themselves. 12 Years a Slave is perhaps his most beautiful film, interjecting the tragedy with simply stunning grace notes of power, beauty, and profundity. It has been quite some time since a film has moved me in much the way this picture has, in fact it is hard to think of one which has had the same effect. A film crafted with a respectful yet uncompromising vision, and one that thoroughly deserves the praise it has and should continue to receive.