Perhaps the front-runner for the coveted Best Picture Oscar this year, 12 Years a Slave is a stunning depiction of one man’s horrific experiences with slavery in the American Deep South. With sublime acting performances, a strong artistic style and great direction from Steve McQueen (not the late American actor), 12 Years a Slave was well worth its praise and hype.
The story follows the life of Solomon Northrup, a free man living in upstate New York with his wife and family. Northrup lives a good life, and is known around town as an excellent violinist. While his wife is away on business, Northrup is propositioned by two circus managers to play in their show, with financial incentives to do so. Northrup accepts and works with them for a while, but when visiting Washington D.C., he is drugged, kidnapped and sold on into the slave trade under a new name, with no hope of return.
The film is first and foremost a visceral and shocking look at the conditions of slaves in Southern plantations. The film has many scenes that are uncomfortable to watch, including whippings, rape and a very distressing scene of lynching. The frequency of these scenes in the film, as well as the feeling of normality in some of their settings, hit home the fact that these things happened a lot at the time, and that the lives of the slaves were constantly filled with suffering. The result is a film that is difficult to watch at times, but still enthralling.
The many acting roles in the film are superb. Lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is exceptional in portraying an intellectual man suffering the injustice of slavery when he knows he should be free. He is especially adept at showing the emotions he is going through at different times of the film. He is a hero worthy of the term, standing up for himself when necessary and doing what he needs to do to survive. Lupita Nyong’o takes her first acting role as Patsey, the favoured slave of plantation manager Edwin Epps, and delivers a powerful performance as she struggles with her life. A range of better-known actors make appearances in different roles in the slave trade; Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch appear early on and play their roles of plantation overseer and manager respectively very well. Michael Fassbender appears as the main villain, Epps, and strikes an extremely sinister tone as he abuses his power over his workers.
Cinematically the film is top-notch. Director McQueen does a great job of making the film artistically pleasing to watch despite the harrowing scenes involved. He makes great use of fading together scenes, contrasting visuals of normality and peacefulness with sounds of pain or abuse and vice versa. The beauty of the Deep South is often juxtaposed with the evils of slavery, making for an added emotional impact. The score is provided by Hans Zimmer and adds character to the emotions of the actors in a way that is both subtle and effective.
If I have any complaints with the film, they are trivial at best. There isn’t a clear representation of where the time in the film goes, and therefore it’s assumed that the events that take place are months and years apart from each other. This means that some of the characters and actors are underutilised, which leads to one or two potential story arcs being left incomplete. It is understandable though, as the film tries to condense years’ worth of Northrup’s life into a film just over two hours long.
12 Years a Slave is a great film, and well worth a trip to the cinema to see. It isn’t a film you will want to see repeatedly, but you can’t argue with its quality.