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12 Years a Slave - review

Feb 3, 2014 Film & TV

12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen


12 Years A Slave is the appalling true story of Solomon Northup, a New York musician who, while on tour, was stupefied and sold into slavery in 1841. He is moved from one plantation to another, landing for 10 years under the ownership of a vicious drunk, Epps (Michael Fassbender). Northup is given absolutely no idea of how long his hell will last, even when he finally finds someone who might help him (hooray for Brad Pitt, investor in the film and potential facilitator of Northup’s freedom).

In more melodramatic hands, this film would have come with a kindly voice-over, a sweeping soundtrack and flashbacks to the lovely wife and abandoned children. But in McQueen’s version, Northup’s family are never seen again, until they are. He has no pictures of them, receives no letters, hears no news, and so neither do we. We see only what Northup sees — he is in every scene — which is to the edge of whatever cotton field he is working, no further inside the plantation’s mansion than the hallway.

As we know from his work with Fassbender in Hunger and Shame, McQueen coaxes incredible physical performances from his actors. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o turns in a breathtaking, Oscar-baiting debut as Patsey, the object of Epps’ vile sexual hunger, while Northup is the role of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s life.

Ejiofor’s performance is mostly interior — oh, those eyes — because, once enslaved, Northup realises quickly that his real name and his vast skills — fiddle-playing aside — are best kept on the down-low. His life as Platt the Slave becomes an obedient routine of drudgery interrupted by brief, bitterly violent episodes: he is beaten, left half-lynched, made to whip a fellow slave, and more.

Do we need to see these events? I think the better question is: can we afford to look away? The reaction to these dehumanising scenes, I would hope, is not so much repulsion as white-hot shame. John Ridley’s script is so faithfully lifted from Northup’s detail-crammed memoir — a must-read, by the way — that a full 80 per cent of the dialogue is from the original book.

“If I have failed in anything,” Northup wrote, “it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.” McQueen has taken care of that. We know from the title how long Northup’s hell lasted. Though we only have to experience a little more than two hours of it, McQueen’s magnificent, brutal, beautiful film will stay with you for longer. I still can’t shake it.


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