Running Time: 134 mins
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt
Director: Steve McQueen
Release Date: 10th January 2014
12 Years a Slave is the terrifyingly true story of Solomon Northup, who documented his experience in his memoirs of the same name, in which he recalls the events of his kidnap and consequent sale into slavery. The film follows Solomon as he is transported from one desperate situation to another in his struggle to return home to his wife and family. Though there are countless films engaged with this subject material few can evoke as much sympathy or boast such compelling material as this one.
Solomon’s life in civilised society in which he is depicted as the ideal citizen, a loving and honest family man, cannot prepare the viewer for the shocking sight of the same man bound in chains and beaten for refusing to verbally relinquish his freedom. This is the first of many such images where the startlingly cruelty of the age is realised in a sequence that is extended for an uncomfortable length of time. McQueen’s decisions with regard to the duration of violence force the spectator to confront the harsh realism in the text. Solomon, and others like him, cannot end the brutality when they decide it is enough, and the viewer cannot escape either.
Subsequently Solomon is sold, stripped not only of his freedom but also of his name, which he is told is now Platt. His first situation places him under charge of Mr Ford, a balanced man of control with a conscience, admirably played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Solomon, attempting to retain his identity and dignity, refuses to be commanded by a white man obviously of lower intelligence than he is. In retaliation, Solomon is taken to the nearest tree with his hands and feet bound together and hoisted into the air with a rope around his neck. This produces one of the most haunting images ever seen, heightened again by the extended duration of the scene. Perhaps what is most unnerving is the sheer number of others who continue their daily tasks around Solomon, who hangs there helpless in a state of living death, struggling to stand in the mud. If he fails to stand he shall certainly hang to death. Out of no less than twenty others only one woman risks danger to herself by providing Solomon with water. The viewer sees that the light changes, indicating the passing of many hours, before Ford returns and can save Solomon from this predicament. Despite the evidence of conscience we see in Ford through his compassion for Soloman’s status as an educated man, this is but fleeting. Ford’s own fear of vigilante repercussions prevent him from further assisting Solomon with his quest to return home. Instead, his solution is to remove him to another situation, a cotton plantation.
Solomon is transferred under the new management of Edwin Epps, a malicious slave owner played by Michael Fassbender, who is fast proving himself to be one of the most versatile actors of the modern age. Any actor capable of representing the startling brutality of such a man as Epps with the same relentless rigour, as Fassbender does, in my opinion, demonstrates his superiority in the acting world. It is impossible not to detest his crazed character in his countless acts of cruelness, both physical and sexual. He is loathsome and deplorable, epitomised by the most horrific of torture scenes where he instructs Solomon to whip Patsy, his top-picking slave for whom he harbours an unhealthy obsession. When Solomon fails to “separate skin from bone” as instructed, Epps himself takes the whip, encouraged by his jealous wife, and I hesitate to write that Fassbender’s performance encompassed so much hateful energy that it was difficult not to be moved to tears.
The only criticism to be made, if one can criticise such a beautifully tragic film as this, was that the spectator was unaware of how Solomon’s time progressed. It comes as a surprise when the film ends to learn that 12 years have passed, despite the very obvious title, for we cannot comprehend a sense of time. While this is likely to be in keeping with Solomon’s own personal experience at the time it would have been beneficial for the spectator to know.
Not since Django Unchained (2012) has there been a film of such comparable quality in this subject area. Yet because of its satirical undercurrent and elaborately gruesome poetic justice, Django cannot match the honesty or emotional intensity of 12 Years. Throughout Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a thoroughly authentic portrayal of Solomon Northup whose focus is personal and not revengeful.
The most harrowing part of Solomon’s narrative is that it is not just a story, but a reality. The lasting impression is with the fact that Solomon’s tale can only be told because he was fortunate enough to be found. For the others he encounters, but also those about whom we cannot possibly know, many never found their freedom. This film brilliantly captures the stark realism of only a few hundred years past and is not frightened into shying away from the grotesque and the unpleasant. It is an enthralling tale that delves into the depths of human depravity and, sadly, with modern cases of slavery still reported, is still surprisingly relevant today.