US/UK | 2013 | Directed by Steve McQueen
Logline: In pre-Civil War America a free black man is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Based on the slave memoirs of Solomon Northup, first published in 1853 (and authenticated in 1968), 12 Years a Slave is a grim and powerful drama that seethes with violence and cruelty, but is sheathed with a sense of beauty and hope. It is one of the most authentic and affecting portraits of American slavery ever put to film (yes, director McQueen eschewed digital in favour of 35mm!)
Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a well-read musician with wife and young daughter, living a privileged life in upstate New York. His skill on the violin earns him a visit from two talent scouts, Moon (Taran Killam) and Hamilton (Scoot McNairy), who offer him lucrative work in Washington D.C. He is wined and dined, but much to his horror and dismay wakes with a splitting hangover, and chained to the floor in a dark wooden cell.
For the next twelve years Northup is forced to work on two Louisiana plantations. He is re-identified as Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia, and is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). A violent confrontation with an overseer (Paul Dano) results in him being sold to another plantation owner, the sociopathic, alcoholic Epps (Michael Fassbender), who believes it his God-given right to abuse black people.
The elegance with which McQueen directs this heart-wrenching, and at times stomach-churning, drama is exquisite. Utilising striking tableaux and stunning landscape imagery, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (McQueen’s regular lensman) strokes the South in painterly fashion. It makes for an interesting contrast to the sweat and toil, the blood and fury, the tears and outrage of Northup’s predicament.
An excellent support cast of established names, some in very small roles, brings much weight to the production, despite their familiarity. Paul Giamatti plays a slaver opportunist who first sells Platt to Ford. Sarah Paulson plays Epps’ wife who, rightly so, suspects her husband of desiring one of the young slave girls, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Bard Pitt, who was instrumental in getting the production financed, plays an abolitionist who listens attentively to Northup’s plight whilst helping him build a gazebo.
Fassbender is typically superb, but it is Ejiofor who delivers the most notable performance, in the central role, and it is a demanding piece as he is in almost every scene. Extraordinary to learn that the actor hails from Britain, as his diction and accent for the role of Northup was perfect. It must be noted, the period dialogue for the entire movie is as authentic as possible, but it doesn’t make for easy audience consumption.
McQueen feels 12 Years a Slave is an American version of The Diary of Anne Frank. He was compelled to make it, and to be as honest as humanly possible, and even though it features Hollywood actors and has an upbeat ending (although its very emotional), he refuses to compromise in order to appease Hollywood audiences. The result is a painfully resonant, unexpectedly poetic, and richly satisfying drama.
12 Years a Slave is released in Australia by Icon Home Entertainment.