Review – 12 Years A Slave (15) [2014]

12 Years a Slave - header2

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

  • Steve McQueen – Hunger, Shame

Cast:

Music Composer:

It is with great relief and pride that state-sponsored slavery has been consigned to history in the West and in most other parts of the world. From ancient times through to the mid-20th century, enforcers of slave-based systems at times demonstrated the worst aspects of human nature. Despite America’s ideology of freedom and democracy for all peoples, the country started off with a terrible stain on its record due to the racially-aggravated slave-based system that was predominantly practised in the South of the country. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave brilliantly gives us a window into the harrowing world of the treatment black people suffered at the hands of white slave masters in the South before the Thirteenth Amendment came into force in 1865.

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as a free man, with his family in New York.

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as a free man, with his family in New York.

12 Years A Slave is based on the true story and memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Born and raised in New York as a free man, Solomon is invited by two ‘artists’ to share his skills with the violin and make some good money by playing in Washington DC.

But after making some money in the capital, Solomon is drugged one night and wakes up in chains in a dank underground cell. Despite his protestations of being a free man, Solomon is shipped to the South and sold into slavery.

Somehow, Solomon must stay alive, maintain his dignity, and return to New York to see his wife and two children again.

12 Years A Slave is a powerful, tear-jerking and distressing film from the off. Nothing by way of raw brutality is left out to illustrate how badly black people were treated under slavery. By starting the film with Solomon in slavery, having all his moments as a free man via flashbacks, Steve McQueen immediately enables audiences to sympathise and pity Solomon’s situation.

Sometimes (to be really pedantic) in order to rub salt into Solomon’s sorrowful predicament, the film indulges itself a little. This has the dual effect of giving Solomon so much screen time that it is as if the world revolves around him (especially due to the fairly long scene sequences that McQueen favours); and it pads out the movie’s running time to 134 minutes by putting in scenes that have no material effect on the plot. But these minor criticisms should not undermine the effectiveness of 12 Years A Slave.

Epps (Michael Fassbender), the nastiest of all the slave owners, shouting crazily at an enslaved Solomon, tormenting him.

Epps (Michael Fassbender), the nastiest of all the slave owners, shouting crazily at an enslaved Solomon, tormenting him.

The movie, however, would only be half as potent if it were not for the great performances from all the cast members, but in particular from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Ejiofor captures the anger and the despair of his character. Moreover, he portrays the sheer willpower of Solomon to survive with (some of) his dignity intact splendidly. Whenever Solomon looks back at the life that was taken from him, viewers cannot help but feel Solomon’s pain, and credit must be given to Ejiofor for enabling audiences to feel such strong emotions.

On the flip side, Fassbender also makes viewers feel strong sentiments with his performance as Edwin Epps, the ‘N*****-Breaker’ as his character is proudly nicknamed. It would have been easy for Fassbender to fall into the trap of a pornographic nastiness (as Ramsey Snow from Game of Thrones and the villains in Hostel and The Human Centipede all gleefully jump into). But by Fassbender playing Epps as an eccentric and quasi-comical human being, with problems of his own, Fassbender provides us with a powerful performance of a sadistic, yet troubled soul that feels entirely natural under the circumstances.

Fassbender can be seen to represent some of the worst facets of slave owners (and humanity in general when given licence). Nevertheless, 12 Years A Slave makes a point to show audiences that some slave owners were not as bad as Epps, and that they lived in fear of men like Epps and their own henchmen because of it.

Black slaves hung for the crime of running away from their cruel masters, and to deter others from trying to do the same.

Black slaves hung for the crime of running away from their cruel masters, and to deter others from trying to do the same.

Being afraid, of course, does not excuse keeping slaves or their actions. But as honest as the film is regarding the cruelty of the slave-system in the South, it is equally honest about why some people, who would have probably been good citizens in the free North, perhaps did not do enough (or anything at all) to help bring down the system. Steve McQueen must be applauded for this, like he should be for virtually everything else in this movie, as it would have been easy to inaccurately portray all slave owners as the Devil incarnate.

Over-all, 12 Years A Slave can be best summed up in the words of one of the actors in the film: “amazing… and none of it good.” Through outstanding performances from the cast, the film powerfully reveals the horrors and brutality of the slave-based system in the South of America in the mid-nineteenth century. One is likely to leave the film feeling numb and distressed, but also with the knowledge that not all the slave owners were wicked and that good men like President Abraham Lincoln put an end to the reprehensible system almost 150 years ago.

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