Anyone who has seen the works of Steve McQueen will agree that he has a penchant for describing the indescribable: from the anguish of a sex addict in Shame (2011), to relentlessly brutal scenes of torture of Irish hunger strikers in Hunger (2008), to his ineffably haunting treatment of labor conditions of gold miners in South Africa in one of his many avant-garde films, Western Deep (2002). It should come as no surprise that his newest work culminates in a masterful application of McQueen’s somber, honest tone and cinematic bravura.
12 Years a Slave is the newest in the shockingly small number of films that deal with slavery, yet unlike Quentin Tarantino’s audacious, almost theatrical, humor in Django Unchained (2012), McQueen deals with this raw topic with due severity in his third feature length film. The scenes of drawn-out torture have elicited a strong response, to say the least. The film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this September saw many viewers walking out due to the barbaric treatment of slaves, a point McQueen no doubt wanted to drive home. There is no sugarcoating of the facts and conditions of this dark period of American history.
While it is understandable that many people could not bear to watch these scenes, due to their connection or awareness of the events depicted, there can be little question that McQueen decisions are an attempt at realism. This may be, perhaps, the reason that 12 Years a Slave won the top prize at the Toronto festival. Yet one cannot ignore the flawless pacing and editing of this narrative, which is based on a true story, and the commendable performances of its star-studded cast (Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael K. Williams, Paul Dano, among others).
The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery in Louisiana. As the film begins, we glimpse his talent as a musician (he plays the violin) and his life with his wife and two children. When two men seem to be impressed by his prowess, they offer to arrange for him to play at various events. However, Solomon wakes up in chains, the first setting in a dark journey that is just beginning. Many have praised Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as the strongest of his career, which is saying something for the seasoned, refined actor. Michael Fassbender (playing the cruel plantation owner, Mr. Epps) and Benedict Cumberbatch delivered more notable performances. No character is one-dimensional or extraneous to the central trajectory of the film, which is not a typical slave narrative, but a story of a man, a human being, struggling retake ownership of his soul. There is tension and heartbreak in every minute of the film, scattered with a few bittersweet laughs. Paul Dano makes good use of his few minutes of screen time in an incredibly powerful scene as a worker on Benedict’s plantation, who despises slaves: the songs he sings to Solomon make for one of the most disturbing scenes in the film.
Tipped for sweeping success at the Oscars, I will coerce all my friends to watch this incredible work of art with me, as so should you.