12 Years a Slave – ★★★★ (1/2)

SYNOPSIS: In 19th Century New York, free African-American man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is drugged and wakes up in chains. His captors believe that he is just another slave and decide to sell him to Southern plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) where he gains a new name and identity. However Solomon’s terrible experience becomes a prolonged one which eventually leads to him working for racist farmer Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who shows no mercy towards any of his slaves particularly young cotton-picker Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Solomon knows that despite his grim predicament, he must battle to survive in order to reunite with his family.

The last few years have seen a resurgence for the racism/slavery element in films which has been the focus of recent features like Lincoln, Django Unchained and The Butler. But unlike those films, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is about as raw as it gets for audiences with its harsh tale of human survival.

Not since Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List has a film of this caliber depicted such a traumatising period for a particular race as the African-American people suffer in McQueen’s latest big-screen triumph.

The word ‘gritty’ best describes the British director’s filmography so far which began with the IRA drama Hunger (for which McQueen deservedly won the Best Newcomer Award at the BAFTAs in 2009) and was then followed up with the sex drama Shame.

However there is no doubting that 12 Years is the biggest film of his directing career so far as he collaborates with screenwriter John Ridley to adapt the brutally-honest memoirs of Northup’s tough experience.

When we first see Solomon, he is dignified and well dressed with a family who adore him. But once he is kidnapped and in chains, his predicament takes a harrowing turn as he endures horrific abuse from his captors to the point of being whipped mercifully when trying to prove he is a free man. Within a few moments, he has gone from respectable gentleman to beaten individual, treated no differently to an animal.

This sets the tone for McQueen’s bleak drama as the director captures the brutal moments of violence intensively particularly through the violent whipping scenes that go far in revealing deep flesh wounds incorporated with an unflinching use of sound.

But there are other images that will stay in your mind for a long time such as the ruthless moments of humiliation that the slaves endure with men and women being forced to bathe and stand together naked. However the most disturbing sequence comes when Solomon spends an uncomfortable five minutes being barely able to stand on the ground as he is strung up via a rope while other slaves go about their daily work.

These horrifying moments become a painful reminder to Solomon about the true horrors of life which change his perspective as he fights a personal battle (and much hostility) which forces him to quietly accepts his situation even if he has to keep on hoping that he will come out of his predicament unscathed.

Through the work of underrated British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years benefits from his commanding and heartfelt performance which has led to deserved acclaim. His well-executed facial expressions enable us to root for Solomon as he goes through different emotions in what is a very well-contained portrayal.

The film is further strengthened by an experienced yet talented support cast who all excel in such a vastly-important narrative.

Frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender delves into dark territory with his performance as the bigoted and despicable Edwin Epps. Although he has played nasty characters before, Fassbender is taking on a real-life villainous role which shares similarities to Ralph Fiennes’ chilling portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. Whenever on screen, he strikes fear into his co-stars and even with the appalled audience.

Sarah Paulson is just as memorable as Epps’s equally-vile wife, a bitterly jealous woman who is scornful towards her husband for his obsession with cotton picker Patsey.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o almost steals the emotional attention away from Ejiofor’s Solomon with her heartbreaking (and award-worthy) turn as Patsey, a young woman who suffers more abuse than her male counterpart and is one we also grow to care about towards the end.

The rest of the engaging cast also excel with Benedict Cumberbatch showing humanity as Solomon’s first owner while the underrated Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano go against type to produce bigoted performances.

Brad Pitt also contributes a brief yet soulful appearance as the Canadian builder who becomes crucial in helping Solomon with his battle for survival.

In the technical department, Hans Zimmer puts forth a loud and enriched score which relies on subtle ticks and striking chords while Sean Bobbit captures the exquisite 19th Century setting with his exquisite camera work which is used impeccably in scenes that focus on the Deep South.

However 12 Years doesn’t quite reach the golden five-star rating which comes to down to the slightly underwhelming end. While it seems like a happy one, it also feels a bit rushed while the epilogue credits don’t quite explain more about certain character’s fates.

It must also be noted that the film is far from easy to watch as some audiences may find it too bleak and uncomfortable to sit through particularly with its racial dialogue and brutal moments of violence.

But unsettling to watch and yet powerfully made, 12 Years a Slave is just too important a film to be ignored and will surely go to clinch Oscar glory. If not, then there will be understandable outrage!

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