The following is a review by guest critic Johnathan Parr.
Steve McQueen’s brutally honest 12 Years a Slave may not be everyone’s idea of a pleasant cinematic experience, but the adaption of such a moving story leaves the viewer with such strong feelings of indignation, it makes the film’s content impossible to ignore – and rightly so.
The film takes us to upstate New York during the mid 19th Century, showing our protagonist Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man, both intelligent and confident (and superbly played by Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor). Solomon enjoys a relatively normal life with his wife and two children in a Northern state bereft of slavery since 1804. What follows is Solomon being deceived and abducted, beaten, and eventually sold to a Louisiana plantation run by the morally ambiguous William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), in one of the fifteen Southern states to still allow slavery at the time. From there, we find Solomon once again being transferred, this time to the plantation of the abhorrent and loathsome Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender in arguably his best performance to date.
The film seemingly breaks down into five sections: Solomon as a free man; his journey to and time at the slave market; his time on the Ford plantation; his time on the Epps plantation; and finally, being taken out of slavery. Interestingly, the first four parts become progressively longer, reflecting the emotional strain on Solomon as his story unfolds. What remains throughout the film is Solomon’s utterly inspiring and, mostly, indomitable spirit. This is a man who refuses to give up on his family, who will not fall into despair.
McQueen uses raw emotion and violence to convey poignant messages of inequality, the value of human life and, as much as one does not like to admit, the dark depths of human nature. Solomon is humanised at the beginning as we are shown shots of him enjoying a vibrant social life as an accomplished violinist, making his plight so much more relatable to the audience, almost as if we are watching a real person, not so much a character in a film. As his story unfolds, he becomes more dehumanised, albeit for Cumberbatch’s Ford, whose attempts to justify his actions via his religion and ‘fairer’ treatment of his slaves only seek to bring morality into a place where it is impossible to do so.
McQueen deals with this perfectly. As Ford reads his religious scripture to his workers, we hear it drowned out by cries from the slave Eliza, who had earlier been separated from her children. In a similar scene, we are once again shown Ford’s scripture being drowned out by his enforcer’s tune of ‘Run, n*****, run’. No matter how he tries to gloss over it, what he is doing is wrong. One of the final shots of this section shows Solomon strung up by the neck, his feet barely touching the ground. McQueen shows the audience this from many angles implying that, while many can see this cruelty, nobody is willing to help due to fear of being subjected to the same torture.
The film then takes a drastic change in tone as Solomon is sold to the Epps plantation, what can only be described as a living hell. From here on, all bets are off. The madness which unfolds leaves the viewer exhausted. Here we see Solomon at his lowest. The moment he breaks his violin in sheer frustration may be the most demoralising scene I’ve ever watched in a film – his spirit finally broken, the one thing connecting him to his past, destroyed. The only redeeming quality of this section comes in the form of an Abraham Lincoln-esque Brad Pitt, the only person to show any humanity, who reminds us that we can find good in the world, even in the most wicked of places.
Solomon, finally rescued, returns home, only to leave the viewer with no real feelings of resolution, as we remain only too aware of the unfathomable amount of human beings subjected to the same treatment who never found their redemption. One shot which will always remain strong in the mind shows Solomon crying for help from a cell; as the camera pans out we see him being held captive in Washington DC, the capital of the “Land of the Free”. The irony, as sad as it may be, shows why 12 Years a Slave is undoubtedly one of the best films of the past twenty years, while also highlighting the need for awareness of such matters if we are to ever learn from our mistakes.