12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen takes us on a harrowing journey with his award-winning film

Steve McQueen’s previous 2 films have already shown us that the versatile director isn’t afraid to take a bold stance on hard-hitting issues. Whether it be the IRA hunger strikes (Hunger, 2008) or a raw look at sex addiction (Shame, 2011) McQueen has often explored overlooked subject matter, examining them in a brutal yet truthful way. With his most recent film McQueen has again given the world an unflinching look at another subject, this time the sensitive issue of slavery. 12 Years a Slave (2013) is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who in 1841 was kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery. Adapted by John Ridley from Northup’s own novel of his experience we follow Solomon on his arduous journey and witness the many startling atrocities he and the other slaves have to endure, all the while as Solomon desperately tries to find a way back home to his wife and children. The film has been McQueen’s biggest success to date, commercially and in terms of accolades it has been awarded. Indeed there’s more than one reason this spectacularly powerful film has won so many awards, including this year’s Oscar for Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen’s forthright direction is something that is always noticeable in his films. Every shot announces his presence, McQueen using the images onscreen to make a statement in every frame and to keep the viewer connected to the events depicted. 12 Years a Slave is no different. Throughout McQueen uses long shots that linger on the characters or on the horrors the slaves’ are subjected to, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography almost documentary style at times as he follows the action, putting the viewer right there with the characters. One such shot that rivals even McQueen’s own magnificent long take used in Hunger (a 17-minute shot of 2 characters talking) is a single, static shot of Solomon as he is left hanging from a tree. McQueen stays with it for what feels like a decade, Solomon’s tiptoes desperately dancing over the mud as he tries to stay alive – just one example of how McQueen ekes out the tension to breaking point throughout the film in order to make a stronger and lasting impact.

His presence is also felt in his bold depiction of shocking incidents, often shown here up close and in all their raw detail, an approach that McQueen also used to deal with the tough subject matter of his previous 2 films. And indeed there are many moments in 12 Years a Slave that will make you want to look away. But McQueen keeps his camera focused on the brutalities, forcing us to watch. This depiction of violence might at first seem to some as excessive and even unnecessary, yet McQueen understands the importance of showing his audience these tough moments. It means that throughout we are continuously connected to Solomon – we see what he sees and therefore almost feel what he feels, ever by his side through even these horrific moments of pain.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

For his script, John Ridley has also understood this need to stay connected to Solomon and for the viewer to feel as though they are on a journey alongside him. Throughout his detailed and atmospheric screenplay his characterisation is rich and varied, so much so that even the many minor roles, some of which could have become mere parodies of ‘baddie’ characters, are fleshed out and made whole. Yet Solomon is the one who Ridley makes us feel the most connection to, who he makes us feel the most pathos for and who he makes us identify with – an important man in a very important story.

Of course this journey in 12 Years wouldn’t be felt without a brilliant central performance to go with the great direction and writing. And the film thankfully has this with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. Subtle yet powerful throughout, the play of emotions that cross his face in each scene tell a thousand unspoken stories for the character. One such astounding scene is when we see the slaves singing together after having buried one of their own. As Solomon joins in with the singing we literally see the pain and despair cross Ejiofor’s face as he portrays Solomon’s sudden realisation of just how lost his old true life is. How Ejiofor didn’t win an Oscar for his performance is completely beyond me.

Epps (Michael Fassbender) threatens Solomon

Other roles in 12 Years a Slave are brief, yet with Ridley’s rich characterisation paired with many great performances, all are made memorable and add to the detailed background of the story. Sarah Paulson as the harsh wife of a plantation owner, Paul Giamatti as a slave trader, Benedict Cumberbatch as a potential shining light in Solomon’s life, Michael K. Williams as a fellow slave, Paul Dano as a brutal overseer to a plantation and many more all portray these difficult and ambiguous characters superbly. However one who sticks in your mind (and who has a slightly larger role to play) is Steve McQueen’s go-to guy, Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a ruthless plantation and slave owner. What in the wrong hands could have simply been a thuggish brute of a man is in Fassbender’s hands humanised and made realistic. Yes, Epps is still a vile and loathsome man. But Fassbender and Ridley also add many other layers to the character, perfectly portraying him as an infinitely complex man who has a war raging inside his own head and who only knows how to respond to anything with violence.

The other character in the supporting cast who makes a lasting impression is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a young slave on Epps’ plantation. Nyong’o displays the sort of onscreen magnetism rarely seen in an actor, drawing us in every second she is onscreen. In a role filled with pain and pathos she truly brings Patsey to life – a poor and beaten soul who nonetheless shows some remaining spirit hidden within her. Every moment with her truly is captivating, as well as completely heartbreaking.

The incredible Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave

Some might be put off by the graphic depictions of violence and the sensitive subject matter. Many may also feel that it’s too much of an endurance watch to bother seeing. But if you let this cloud your judgement of the film then you are missing the point. The film needed to be unflinching in order to truly do justice to this story of this poor man’s life and a nation of others subjected to slavery. And let’s face it, this was never going to be easy viewing. 12 Years a Slave is beautifully adapted by John Ridley from a book and story few have heard about and perfectly acted by a great ensemble cast, especially by Chiwetel Ejiofor. However it is Steve McQueen’s direction, coupled with Sean Bobbitt’s beautiful yet brutal cinematography, that really pulls you into this harrowing story at every moment and never lets you go. By the end you’ll almost certainly be in tears with this heart-wrenching tale, but it will be worth it to see one of the most gorgeous, powerful and riveting films of this year.


~ by square-eyed-geek on June 6, 2014.

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