Few films will impact you like 12 Years a Slave. It's brutal, tragic and an unflinching account of slavery. But such is the talent through every aspect of this production that the film is also gripping and eminently watchable.
The film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who is drugged by two white men who make his acquaintance and sold into slavery. Unable to contact his wife and children and broken by the violence of his captivity, he is smuggled into the South where he is sold to slave owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Ford is a comparably compassionate man but also a weak one. He recognises Northup's skills and rewards him with token acts of kindness but lacks the courage to act on his doubts when Northup confesses to him that he is a free man. Instead of freeing Northup, he passes him on to vicious and sadistic slave master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) to settle a debt. And what started off as a gross act of injustice suddenly gets a whole lot worse.
The story is terrible and fascinating as is but in Steve McQueen's hands, the film has its perfect helmsman. Nothing is spared and nothing is glorified. A life in slavery was bloody, brutal and often short. None of that is glossed over here. But the politics of life as a slave was also complex.
Survival for slaves meant that it was wiser for them not to get involved, not to intervene when other slaves were brutalised, raped or even strung up. The guilt of that complicity of silence weighs heavy in the film.
A sequence where Solomon has only barely survived being strung up by a vitriolic overseer but is left in his noose, hands tied behind his back, with only the tips of his toes touching the ground being all that stands between him and a broken neck is traumatising. Solomon is left there all day whilst the other slaves pass by, none daring to cut him down to save him.
McQueen is also not afraid from showing how other black men and women became active participants in the perpetuation of slavery by working up to whip-hands as willing and vicious as the white men they've replaced. And those black women who've caught the eye of their white male slave owners and moved up from slave to lady of the house take on the airs and graces of the white society that oppressed them, doing nothing to ease the pain for those they left behind.
This silence is literal too. There is almost not a single note of musical accompaniment in the film. The cotton-picking is in silence, what passes as dinner is eaten in silence and the slaves' long nights in bare, cold rooms are endured in silence.
The acting is extraordinary from every actor in the cast, whether in a significant role or part of the ensemble.
Once bound in chains, Solomon Northup has almost nothing to say. Of course he doesn't. He is a slave and slaves are not allowed to speak. And such is the fear, they don't even talk amongst themselves when their masters backs are turned. Instead Chiwetel Ejiofor shows Solomon's agony and his bitter guilt at his complicity in the keep-your-heads-down mentality through the occasional glance up and the increasing hunch in his shoulders.
Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch both give brief but perfectly pitched performances as men who recognise the injustice of slavery but with different strengths of character in addressing their doubts.
Lupita Nyong'o is a revelation as Patsey, the young slave who is the subject of an obsessive, possessive fixation from Epps. And Sarah Paulson who plays his jealous wife, Mary, is superb.
And Fassbender is awesome as the sick sadistic slave master whose vicious treatment of his property is matched only by his lust for Patsey. His mere presence cows everyone on his plantation into silence whilst even a deeply whispered threat from him into the ear is enough to terrorise even the most hardened man. It is a performance that underlines what a brilliant actor he is.
I came out of the film heartbroken. There was no joy in Solomon's eventual reconciliation with the family - nor does the film look to foster such sentiment. Far too much damage has been done to the mind, body and soul for there to be any smiles at the end.
I have a weakness for films that scar the soul and 12 Years a Slave scars very deep indeed. Beautiful. Harrowing. Unforgettable.
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