The fact this is a true story is heart-breaking and horrifying. As American cinema continues its raw and painfully cathartic recognition of the nation’s past, in “12 Years A Slave” it has produced its most unrelenting, brutal and uncompromising pieces of cinema yet. Gone is the scholarly detachment of “Lincoln“, the polemic hypocrisy of “The Butler” or the sensationalist pulp revenge fantasy of “Django Unchained“. In its place, is a bleak, unflinching portrayal of slavery; steeped in viciousness, red in whip and lash: a blistering indictment of a savagely unjust and indefensible system and the corrupt and immoral men and women who allowed it to prosper. You can forget your leather-face serial killers, demonic hauntings and monsters from the depths of the night: “12 Years A Slave” is a horror film in the truest sense of the word, made all the more horrific by the fact that it all really happened.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a happily married man with two children, a skilled carpenter, a talented fiddle player and, most importantly, a free man living in 1841 New York State. When his wife and children are away, he is tricked into travelling to Washington where he is drugged, kidnapped, shipped to New Orleans and sold into slavery, receiving the name ‘Platt’ – the identity of a runaway slave from Georgia. Across a span of 12 years, he toils in servitude to a variety of masters before finally regaining his freedom through the courage and kindness of a Canadian Carpenter (Brad Pitt).
Paul Giamatti puts in a nasty cameo as upmarket slave trader Theophilus Freeman who sells Northup to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively benevolent master. However after an escalating series of altercations with plantation worker John Tibeats (a hateful Paul Dano), Ford is forced to sell Northup to Cotton farmer Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) to save his life.
Epps is a much crueller, more capricious master than Ford and fervently believes in his divine and biblical right to own slaves. In addition to harvesting cotton, being regularly beaten and forced to dance for their masters’ amusement, Northup and his fellow slaves, especially a young girl called Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), become pawns in an increasingly vicious psycho-sexual power struggle between Epps and his bitter, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). The cast, as you would expect, put in terrific performances. While Cumberbatch, Dano, Giamatti and Pitt are little more than glorified cameos, Fassbender is mesmeric as Edwin Epps and the scenes between him, Ejiofor, Paulson and newcomer Nyong’o crackle with passion and intensity.
Make no mistake, “12 Years A Slave” is a challenging, difficult and uncomfortable film to watch and Director Steve McQueen has no interest in making it any other way. His camera lingers for a long, long time on scenes of appalling cruelty, daring the audience to blink first. Filmed in a semi-soporific dream-like way, shots of trees draped in Spanish moss and plantation slaves singing while they harvest are interspersed with moments of shocking violence, murder, rape, torture and McQueen wants to make sure you are aware of every eye-searing injustice visited upon these people. He forcibly strips away the protective layers the decades separating the viewer from the antebellum South provide and gives you only one option for escape: to choose to look away from the screen itself.
There were a couple of moments where I contemplated walking out of the film, and one especially which made me seriously question what I was doing sitting in a cinema watching a man be tortured in one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever seen. There is a lynching scene in the first half of the film where Northup is strung up and left to hang, desperately trying, on tiptoes, to gain enough purchase in the muddy ground to prevent himself being choked to death. The scene lasts an eternity and eventually I had to look away. How long to you need to show something for before revelatory education becomes something darkly voyeuristic? McQueen may have eased up somewhat on the sterile clinicality of his previous effort “Shame” but here it’s been replaced by an almost pathological need to hammer home the utter barbarity of man’s inhumanity to man. There’s a mean streak of gratuitous brutality through this film which occasionally pushes the desire to show the truth into a something uglier and exploitative.
There’s an episode of “American Dad!” where Roger the alien, as the villainous Tearjerker comes up with an absurdly complicated plot involving making a movie called “Oscar Gold”, the story of a young Jewish mentally handicapped alcoholic boy hiding with his puppy (who dies of cancer) in an attack from the Nazis. It’s a typically unsubtle MacFarlane-esque dig at the tendency of the Academy and other awards panels to laud films dealing with difficult historical or emotional subject matter but it also makes a valid point. There’s an air of cynicism and a whiff of guilt in how fêted “12 Years A Slave” has been when it comes to awards.
This is, of course, an expertly crafted, powerful film with sensational performances and a critical central message. It is not an enjoyable film watching experience, nor is it entertaining or particularly educational – it won’t teach you anything you don’t already know, it just might add some lurid images and distressing scenes to your knowledge. The incredible true story of a remarkable man who suffered, survived and escaped a heinous regime has been stripped of any hope, optimism or even inspiration: the moral here is not that one man was saved, more that millions were not.
It is a great film? Yes. Did I enjoy it? No. Would I recommend it? I don’t know. This is an important film, and destined to be a subject of study in classrooms, theses and dissertations for years to come. I understand that sometimes cinema must, and should, do more than entertain but there’s a choice in this film to prolong and almost sadistically wallow in the traumatic acts of physical violence that just doesn’t sit comfortably with me. Impossible to ignore, even harder to score.