There has been an enormous amount of hype surrounding Steve McQueen’s third feature film, as following on from the ingeniously and devastating pictures Hunger and Shame, the British director now tackles slavery, bringing the incredible memoirs of Solomon Northup to the big screen. With various Oscar and BAFTA nominations to its name, and a Golden Globe in the bag already, many are citing this poignant drama as one of the most important, powerful films of all time, and they’re not wrong.
The story begins in 1841 with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free, wealthy black man, living with his family in upstate New York. However when his wife is away on work business, Northup, renowned locally for his talent on the violin, is whisked away with the promise of a new job – only to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. His ceremonious past and intellectual upbringing no longer serves him, as he is a subject of undignified brutality, and monstrosities like no other, as he moves between masters, before ending up on the unforgiving ranch of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Alongside the other slaves, in particular the abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), their treacherous, inhumane treatment makes Northup’s past life seem a distant memory.
In a similar vein to how Schindler’s List managed with the Holocaust, 12 Years a Slave feels about as definitive a piece of cinema could be in capturing such a destructive, reprehensible time. McQueen does a masterful job of portraying such atrocities so powerfully, and yet remaining so subtle. It’s never emotionally manipulative, and the material is treated respectfully. Some of the scenes are excruciating to watch too, while the intense sound of lashings against bare, human flesh harrowingly stay with you, as much so as the stirring Hans Zimmer score. Ejiofor turns in an incredible performance, somehow managing to avoid feeling like a victim, as he’s so subtle and sincere. Fassbender is also as breathtaking as ever, this time portraying an inherently cruel slave owner. He’s a nasty, contemptible man, and yet he’s not just a monster. Fassbender brings a human touch to the role, and behind the vicious facade you see a lost, little boy.
There is simply no retribution to this title, as a film devoid of any palpable happy ending, given what our protagonist is put through. You may leave proceedings feeling dispirited, desolate and broken – but you can also leave knowing you’ve just watched a modern classic, and a film that is bound to outlive us all.