Movie review: 12 Years A Slave

Written by: Mark Cappuccio

Or ‘How to make a film that will stir up a hornet’s nest but also ensure that it gets awards for the cast and the subject matter’.

Photographer and filmmaker Steve McQueen returns with his third film, this time telling the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black man from Upstate New York who is conned, robbed and then sold into slavery.  Throughout his struggles he encounters extreme abuse from his white owners (Edwin Epps played by Michael Fassbender) to kindness from other slaves and from unexpected people and places.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave

Let’s be clear, slavery is and was bad. However, I do not feel that I need someone to hammer this home to me hundreds of years after the fact with onscreen depictions of rape, torture and degradation all in the name of filmic entertainment or a worthy history lesson. McQueen seems to revel in making his audiences feel uncomfortable and suffer throughout all of his films, from the emancipated frame of Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Hunger to the screwed-up sister (Carey Mulligan) of sex addict Fassbender (again) in Shame. Yet when recently interviewed by The Guardian, he seemed to adopt a boyish ignorance of how he constructs his work and almost goes as far as to deny this fact, wanting to come across like some giant idiot savant.

Regardless of this, the film does contain an astounding central performance from Ejiofor, who for the entire film imbues Solomon with a quiet dignity and gravitas that rises far about the manipulative direction and hugely stereotypical and clichéd story (albeit a true one).

Acting support is of the highest quality in even the smallest of roles, with impressive turns from Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scoot McNairy, and Alfre Woodard. But special mention should also be made of Paul Dano’s role of odious head carpenter John Tibeats (on Epps’ plantation) who shows again that he is maturing into one of the most interesting actors of his generation.

Fassbender is Fassbender – dependable and intelligent onscreen as ever but harder to take seriously now that he seems to be playing elements of himself and his other roles every film. There are even shades of Magneto present here.

As this review is published, the film has already won a Golden Globe for best film and will no doubt win a lot more awards around the world. But please stop and realise that audiences are completely manipulated throughout the entire film’s overlong running time, from predictable atmospheric musical cues during disturbing scenes, extreme close-ups, shots held just a little too long, all done to wring every molecule of emotion from them.

This is powerful filmmaking no doubt, but the message is muddled and the only thing changed by the closing credits will be the future reputations of its director and stars.

Last year in London, three women were found to have been enslaved in a non-descript suburban house for nearly 21 years. Their story and struggles would have made a far more interesting story and film than what is presented here.

Mr. McQueen, slavery is and was bad but it has NEVER gone away.

Author: Mark Cappuccio

Mark grew up as a ragged street urchin in Bermondsey and escaped the soot of the city to the green hills of North Wales to study English and Film at a cheap university. While there he started up the university magazine and acted as editor and chief contributor, he also made three short films, starred and produced in some plays and true to form played an excellent Scrooge one Christmas long ago. He fled Wales as they did not like his Dj’ing and returned to Londinium, where he now teaches Film & Media studies, works on his book, writes a blog, short stories and also finds time to work as ScreenTrade magazines’ resident film reviewer and has written the successful and popular ‘Box Office Banter’ articles for the last 10 years. One of his weirdest film memories is seeing The Empire Strikes Back as a child and then chasing off a man trying to break into a car behind the cinema because he thought he was Chewbacca! He has too many favourite films and hates being asked but will be watching Singin’ in the Rain for the rest of his days.

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