Film review: 12 Years a Slave

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Joseph Austin reviews Steve McQueen’s historical epic 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the true events of the 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave is a striking tale of cruelty, survival and, above all else, freedom.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black violinist born free from slavery in the state of New York, is deceived by two phoney businessmen and subsequently abducted.

Solomon wakes to find himself in chains, faced with unjust accusations that he is in fact a runaway slave from a plantation in Georgia.

He protests his freedom to no avail, his pleas falling on the deaf ears of men profiting from his capture.

Beaten and forced aboard a ship set sail for the deep south of the United States, Solomon is stripped of everything; his wife and children, his identity and his freedom.

Cinema has rarely ventured into the convoluted subject of slavery.

Steven Spielberg’s Amistad brought the brutality of the African slave trade to Hollywood in 1997.

However, the film’s courtroom drama feel ultimately disappointed in what otherwise could have been a more than compelling chronicle of the history of slavery.

Quentin Tarantino’s self-indulgent and ultra-violent Django Unchained (2012) also tackled the torturous topic of slavery, though QT’s efforts are too focused on his usual lavishness behind the camera, and complete bloody mayhem in front of it, to create any ‘real’ re-telling of history.

In fact, the scenes of violence in 12 Years a Slave (which in truth are few and far between but, also disturbingly brutal) lend themselves more to a Tarantino feature than the supposed critical masterpiece it has been said to be.

Yet it would be a mistake to criticise McQueen’s third feature film in five years solely on the basis that it is too violent.

Solomon Northup’s story (adapted for the big screen by John Ridley) carries with it an undeniable and almost overbearing weight that takes a hold of your conscious, and begs the question “how did it come to this?”

It exposes perhaps the darkest period in American history, and does so without any extravagance or Hollywood gloss.

12 Years a Slave could be summed up in one word: necessary.

McQueen expertly drags you deeper in to despair as the film plays out, offering hope to both us and our protagonist, just as quickly as it is snatched away. This is epitomised by the beautiful yet perturbing shot of Solomon’s heartfelt letter slowly catching fire and turning to dust.

As overwhelming as the story itself are the exceptional performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, and Michael Fassbender as the tyrannical plantation owner Edwin Epps.

Huge credit must also go to newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy, the young slave girl who finds herself privy to Epps’ erratic temperament.

Hans Zimmer is yet again perfect on the soundtrack, with remnants of Inception’s Time finely complimenting the film’s raw emotions.

Never before has slavery been portrayed as provocatively as it is here.

Whether or not you agree with some critics that it is a masterpiece, or simply an important film worthy of seeing, 12 Years a Slave is without doubt a truly significant milestone in cinematic history.