12 Years a Slave is a beautiful, haunting fable against the depths of human cruelty, and by avoiding the trapdoor of becoming politicised by race is evermore excellent for it.
It sounds nonsense on the face of it, but this is a film of immense power not because it reinvigorates a centuries-old debate on the ridiculous notions of race which surrounded the slave trade, but because it humanises and normalises it.
What was it like, why was it like it? It’s a film about evil existing primarily due to the ignorance and greed of individual perpetrators, rather than an entire world being ‘pro-slavery’. McQueen is careful to pepper the film with knowing glances and moments of synergy and synchronicity between the races, alongside the brutal floggings, mental intimidation and betrayal in all their various forms.
There is, however, a shared guilt simmering in this gloriously recreated 19th Century Southern USA. The story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is, in retrospect, the perfect metaphor for the message of the time. This free man is exploited solely on the basis that he is black; he is stripped of any humanity so that his captors can be emancipated from their guilt, and then as a piece of merchandise he is sold to owners who will choose to care for their new commodity, or to abuse and replace it.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender are cast as the ‘good’ (if that ever be possible) and ‘bad’ slavers respectfully; however Fassbender’s performance shines – as is often the case with the lowlives of film – as the detestable Edwin Epps. The sense of injustice conveyed boils over to downright animosity before his time in the role is through. The brutality on show is distressing and, sadly, probably not as severe as it may have been in reality.
More complex social layers are added by Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) whose deep seated hatred of the slaves living on the cotton farm seems as much a reflection of her subjugation as any pigmentation of the skin. Once again this touches on the notion that is was individuals’ own prejudice at play, and a world passively ignorant to that, rather than a conscious effort to oppress an entire race.
It is Chiwetel Ejiofor (Northup) who is immediately amiable, intelligent and warm. His previous station in society is revisited throughout his incarceration and he seems to develop the hindsight (which we all are privileged to be in possession of today) during his darkest moments.
There are times in which Ejiofor’s face fills the screen and carries a dozen emotions all at once, none more so than in a gripping scene involving a terrible shattering of hope, following by a deeply threatening chat with the odious Epps. The closing moments of the picture are loaded with repressed emotion and passion, and his diligent commitment to keeping his performance slightly understated and dignified is finally turned skyward into sheer drama; it’s a magnificent, uplifting scene.
McQueen mixes top end production values, beautiful landscapes and explosive close-ups with sweeping camerawork to create sumptuous visuals. Reminiscent, in fact, of the criminally underrated Perfume: The Story of A Murderer which is an equally affecting, yet entirely differently motivated, period piece. It shouldn’t be forgotten, sombre philosophising aside, that 12 Years a Slave is a very entertaining, period thriller as well as being a universally significant essay on human rights.
This is compulsive, essential, and powerful cinema; an instant classic and representing everything that is marvellous about spending a couple of hours in another space and time. Prepare to have your breath taken away.