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Film Title

12 Years a Slave

Director

Steve McQueen

Starring

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
  • Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps
  • Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey
  • Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford
  • Paul Dano as John Tibeats
  • Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman
  • Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps
  • Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass
  • Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw

Unrelenting, visceral and staggeringly powerful, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery and unimaginable cruelty. It won’t be the easiest film to watch, but it shouldn’t be as it shows the horrifying constitution of slavery and one mans quiet bravery in order to survive.

Beginning in 1841, Solomon Northup is a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and two young children. He works as a carpenter and is highly skilled at playing the fiddle. He is offered a two-week job as a musician by two men, who proceed to drug him and place him in chains in preparation for being sold into slavery. Stripped of his freedom and renamed Platt he is first sold to William Ford, who is relatively benign and benevolent towards Solomon. The same can’t be said about John Tibeats, the weasel like worker of Ford’s takes every opportunity to voice his racist attitudes and tensions soon come to a shocking head. In order to help Solomon, Ford sells him to Edwin Epps. Solomon realises that in order to survive he must hide the fact he is an educated man and be as quiet as possible. Unfortunately, Epps is a violent,unpredictable slave owner who believes he is doing the work of God by abusing his plantation workers. Epps lusts after Patsey, one of his best workers who he also abuses many times. His lusting after her doesn’t sit well with his wife, who takes every opportunity she can to inflict pain on Patsey. As the years go by, Solomon attempts to survive by holding onto his hope. Prepare for a brutally honest, harrowing but also hopeful tale of the quiet courage of one man against the odds.

The first thing that deserves praise is Steve McQueen’s refusal to sugarcoat any of the torture that happens to the slaves. Whereas other movies shy away from it, McQueen lets his camera linger on the brutal scenes to show us the inhumanity of it. Two scenes that are hard to watch but staggeringly powerful and brutal are Solomon struggling with a noose around his neck as we hear his breathing become little more than a gasp and the horrifying whipping of Patsey, her back covered in lacerations and her face streaming with tears. I admire the way McQueen shows the unflinching detail and lets the audience feel the emotional and physical pain endured by the slaves. He doesn’t let the audience sit comfortably and makes them really squirm with the showing of human suffering. Hans Zimmer contributes an evocative score to match the emotional intensity of the film. The cinematography captures the twilight beauty of the bayou as the willow trees gently blow in the breeze but juxtaposes these with sickening images of torture and pain, creating the notion that there may be beauty in the world but the reality is a harsh and brutal eye-opener. To think that these inhumane actions really happened to people is horrifying to think of.

What really makes 12 Years a Slave a powerful and important film is the uniformly excellent cast. Heading this is the powerful performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor. He embodies the quiet, stoic bravery of Solomon with immense emotional dexterity. Even when he isn’t speaking, his intense eyes radiate the emotions his character endures as he attempts to survive the utter horror he has been thrown into. His performance is a marvellous and subtle piece of work that deserves all the praise it is getting. Tearing up the screen is McQueen regular Michael Fassbender as the evil Edwin Epps. Fassbender intensely plays this man of cruelty who uses religion as a way to justify his treatment of his slaves. He shows us the unpredictability of Epps as he wrestles with his desire for one of his workers. Lupita Nyong’o in her debut performance is a powerful presence in what has to rank as one of the best debut performances in cinema. She is heartbreaking, sincere and devastatingly powerful as Patsey, the slave who endures an immense amount of cruelty at the hands of her owners. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the benign slave owner who respects Solomon, whilst Paul Dano is a slimy, rat like presence as the insecure racist Tibeats. Paul Giamatti is the unscrupulous man who sells slaves without a care in the world. Sarah Paulson adds a frightening and vindictive dimension to her character, the spurned wife of Epps who unable to handle the love he has for one of his workers takes her anger out in horrifying fashion on the object of his affections. Brad Pitt has a small role as the abolitionist who listens to Solomon’s tale of survival. Pitt isn’t really given much to do in the film and his presence can be a little distracting. Alfre Woodard in a small but memorable role plays a former slave who is married to her former owner and now has servants to wait on her. The only flaw I can really think of is concerning the passage of time which isn’t really addressed that much. But with that being my only quibble, the film is still one of the most powerful and eye-opening films I’ve seen in a long time.

Raw, visceral and full of emotional impact, 12 Years a Slave is a powerful and haunting achievement in filmmaking that should be seen at least once by everyone for its examination of slavery and the courage of one man thrown into it.

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