I Watched… #56 (12 Years a Slave)

30 Jan

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12 Years a Slave (2013)
★★★★★

Slavery is an oft-covered subject in cinema, from tacit acceptance in Gone with the Wind to the fantastical, gratuitous revenge story of Django Unchained, but it has taken many years and a young, English artist-turned-director to portray its true horrors.
Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) tells the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as is, whereas most period pieces sacrifice history for the theatrical, McQueen sticks to the facts. The facts were that Northrup, a free man living outside New York with his wife and two children, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South of antebellum USA. McQueen focuses on the story of one man, but Northrup’s story clearly defines the American slave trade.

This is certainly McQueen’s most ambitious project yet, some may even view it as bravery but a film such as this shouldn’t be brave because, in truth, it should have been made decades ago – a film where slavery is unwrapped, dismantled and it’s rotten core fully exposed.
12 Years a Slave is a powerful film, but even this label is too broad, so many films are powerful: romantic ones that tug the heartstrings to drug-fuelled tales of caution. It is McQueen’s masterpiece though, that creates it’s own sub-category, it goes beyond thanks to its overdue necessity, it drags shame and the deep depravity of human nature forward into the light, it can be seen by all and the habitually employed shadows of theatricality are cast off.

Northrup is the anchor of the story and the audience’s conduit into the depths of slavery. He was a man born free, a musician unaccustomed to the hardships of slavery and shocked by its brutality, a relatable figure in an unfamiliar world. Once on the plantations of Louisiana, arriving there by paddle-steamer by way of New Orleans, Northrup finds himself in a foreign place, the urban comforts upstate New York replaced with humid swamps, towering trees weeping moss and cotton fields, their white crop as the soft source of endless suffering.

There is a wild beauty to the Southern landscape, an element that McQueen fully exploits; the influence of Terence Malick is clear as shots linger on the lush bayou, a peaceful place that bears the scars of slavery, much like the slaves who have felt the whip.
Idyllic nature is juxtaposed with brutality of man and no man is more brutal than Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Northrup’s second master after the benign Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is forced to sell. Epps is an unrelenting master who in one hand holds the whip and in the other, the bible. Religion and force combine to justify and enforce his ownership and shocking treatment of his ‘property’. He is part of a mad world; a world where slave-master’s preaching drowns out cries of mother’s stripped of their children, a world where unspeakable acts appear to be gospel, a world where people plunge to the depths of humanity and don’t resurface.

Northrup is a keen violinist and it is his musically orientated tour to Washington that leads to his abduction, music is an inherent thread of the film. Hans Zimmer’s score is hauntingly perfect and it is a violin – presented to him by Ford – that gives Northrup a link to his past life, the names of his family carved into the ornate woodwork. The slaves sing songs in the cotton fields; music provides a moment when the slaves, at least in mind, can be free. Some of the slaves do call out for death but most want to live, survival is not living but it is better than death, just about.

Ejiofor is magnificent, he more than holds his own despite being surrounded by a sterling cast including Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti who, alongside Lupita Nyong’o in her stunning debut performance, provide the pieces for McQueen’s raw spectacle.

12 Years a Slave is essential cinema; necessary, shocking and honest. Where the eyes would naturally waver, the camera stares, unable to flinch as scenes of hanging, rape and lashing seem to play on well into the realm of the uncomfortable. McQueen portrays humans as going back to their animalistic roots; the slaves are forced whilst others descend into a primordial madness, a whip and bible in hand with money on the mind.
12 Years a Slave is a searing, visual poem, but one born with a dark heart. It is a truly unmissable film, even though some may be reluctant to watch it again.

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