The clear frontrunner of this year’s awards season, British director Steve McQueen’s harrowing historical drama 12 Years A Slave tackles America’s primal sin of slavery with unflinching honesty, leaving in the shade Hollywood’s previous efforts to address the subject, from the rose-tinted myopia of Gone With the Wind to the gore-and-irony-soaked fantasy of Django Unchained.
McQueen’s film, by contrast, is steeped in authenticity. Its source is the memoir of Solomon Northup, a freeborn man abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South. Played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup is a talented violinist and carpenter living in upstate New York in 1841 with his wife and children. Fatefully, when two white men approach him with an offer of work with a travelling music show he accepts, only to find himself duped, drugged and bound in chains – the start of a dozen-year-long ordeal in the plantations of Louisiana.
McQueen doesn’t shrink from depicting the horrors Northup endures, as he passes from the comparatively benign ownership of his first master, Benedict Cumberbatch’s weak-willed Ford, into the hands of Michael Fassbender’s unhinged sadist Epps. The beatings and whippings Northup and his fellow slaves go through are as tough to watch as you would expect.
But McQueen is similarly uncompromising in exposing the mechanics of slavery and its warped psychology. Northup is significantly stripped of his identity as well as his freedom when his initial captors ship him to New Orleans under the new name Platt; and any time he attempts to assert his rightful status he encounters violence. He soon learns that his survival depends on disguising his history and education rather than asserting it.
Displays of intelligence are similarly perilous, as Northup discovers when he incurs the ire of Paul Dano’s vicious overseer Tibeats. Exhibiting his engineering ability, he exposes the threat the white man feels from any sign of a black man’s accomplishments. Yet it is the character of Epps, brilliantly played by Fassbender, who most clearly reveals slavery’s twisted pathology, one moment drunkenly quoting from the Bible to justify his lordship, the next driven to the brink of insanity by his desire for Lupita Nyong’o’s slave Patsey.
What McQueen is depicting could not be more emotionally incendiary, yet his approach to the material is one of typical restraint, deploying the same unblinking camera of his Turner prize-winning art installations and his feature-film portrayals of IRA hunger striker (Hunger) and New York sex addict (Shame).
Those previous films left many viewers cold. Here the same technique – the long, unbroken takes that are McQueen’s trademark, for example – proves incredibly affecting. Ejiofor’s magnetic intensity in the central role is crucial, too, yet while his character’s unquenched courage and resilience shines forth, what lingers most in the mind is the horrifyingly perverse normality of slavery.
And the scene that brings this truly home isn’t a remorselessly bloody lashing but the sequence – filmed, of course, in a long unbroken take – in which Northup survives a near lynching, dangling from the end of a noose and balancing precariously on the tips of his toes while the everyday life of the plantation goes on around him.
Certificate 15. Runtime 134 mins. Director Steve McQueen.
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