Turner Prize winning artist-turned director Steve McQueen has built up quite the reputation amongst those in his native British film industry. With his two previous forays into the world of film offering us the artistic flair and shocking sexual deviance of Shame and the oppressive realism of Hunger, it is no surprise McQueen’s reluctant journey into the limelight of Hollywood with 12 Years a Slave has proven to be nothing short of a resounding success – and one with truly mind-blowing results. After watching this film, it is clear why it is already a Golden Globe winner and a multiple Oscar nominee.
In recent years slavery has found a space in the artistic conscience of Hollywood. However this has not always been the case. Historically the most successful films dealing with slavery have only offered an indistinct glimpse into the cruel obedience and sepia-toned landscape of the slave-era American South. Gone with the Wind and perhaps more poignantly Steven Spielberg’s Amistad were both unafraid of asking difficult questions. But a nation’s psyche can be a fragile thing, and as a result of this American filmmakers have often elected to concentrate on the post-emancipatory era, when the American establishment gradually enumerated African American rights, allowing for more positivist narratives centred around desegregation and the civil rights acts (think Mississippi Burning). The brutal story of slavery has ultimately been over-looked by filmmakers, a fact that has since been drawn upon by McQueen himself when asked about Hollywood’s mistreatment of the topic.
In the past year the United States celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1st 1863. As if buoyed by the national pride this memory evoked, the film industry has been spurred on to re-visit slave era America. However 12 Years a Slave is the kind of film that does not need any moral counterparts to support its message – this is a film unapologetically aligned with the historical facts, and unabashed in its exploration of human psychology, power relationships and ownership of ‘the other’.
Based upon the memoirs of New York musician and family-man Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave follows the tragic story of his kidnap and sale into slavery in 1841. Played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup is tricked into touring as a musician before being drugged and kidnapped by slave traders, who then ship him to Louisiana to work on a cotton plantation. Ejiofor is a perfect fit for a McQueen film. Charismatic and composed, his nuanced acting style captures the physical and mental toll slavery must have taken on Northup – his stance changes as the film progresses, his temper becomes shorter and his voice more desperate – but throughout Ejiofor also manages to capture the moral strength and social standing Northup possessed.
McQueen is also a director whose style is instantly recognisable. In each of his three films so far a long shot of a particularly important or emotive scene is allowed to play out in its entirety, with no cuts or editing room tricks implemented during post-production. In this case Northup is about to be hung by a master whom he has managed to anger one too many times. Although the protection he receives from his first and relatively benign slave-owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, means that Solomon cannot be killed outright, he is left dangling with only the tips of his feet able to touch the ground to stave off strangulation. McQueen stretches out this scene, with Solomon gasping for breath as the other slaves ignore him in fear for themselves, for at least two whole minutes. Both difficult to watch but also expertly placed, this scene forces the audience to reflect and fully comprehend the vulnerability of this once free man without distracting them with further narrative.
The ever captivating Michael Fassbender plays the tormented and nefarious slaver Edwin Epps, whose depravity stretches from sex with slave girl Patsey (played expertly by big-screen newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), to waking his slaves up in the middle of the night and forcing them to dance for his own amusement. The depravity culminates in another lengthy shot where Northup is forced to whip fellow slave Patsey against his will. These scenes are deserving of a mention, because it is precisely this kind of story-telling that sets this film apart from its peers – and that will keep you thinking long after you leave the cinema.