Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

by Callum B. Downes

If you’re anything like me, you probably held some reservations before watching this film. Doing your upmost to ignore the hysteria, which relentlessly surrounded its release and asking yourself, could it really leave me as emotionally drained as the incinerator scene on Toy Story 3?

Astonishingly, the answer is, yes it can. To be honest, the last time I’d felt so inexpressibly moved during a film doesn’t exist, as director Steve McQueen delivers a gut-retching take of raw emotion and human suffering, unparalleled in today’s filmmaking industry.

Any self-confessed lover of cinema, art, history or the exploration of the human condition must seek to immerse themselves in this sensory feast, which not only achieved cinematic breakthroughs that will fashion the future of filmmaking forever, but also cemented itself within the enclaves of history by becoming the first movie directed by a African-American (Steve McQueen) and also written by an African-American (John Ridley), to win “Best Motion Picture” and “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony.

12 Years A Slave is based upon the life of Solomon Northup, a well respected freeman of New York, who was kidnapped and enslaved in 1841, leaving behind his wife, two children and self-made careers in carpentry and music. Sold like livestock to a surprisingly compassionate plantation owner in the south (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon, renamed “Platt”, loses everything he once cherished. His life spirals into a constant arm wrestle against fear, cruelty and humiliation, as he is sold into the hands of the maniacal “Epps” (Michael Fassbenger), whose palpable lust for slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) sends him uncontrollably into vicious fits of rage brought on by his own self-loathing.

It is during these onsets of fury that McQueen implores the audience to empathise ever so deeply with the pain expressed by his characters, who are literally slashed to shreds, bringing to light the harsh realities faced by these slaves during one of humanities darkest periods in history. Strikingly powerful close-ups and extended single takes, allow us to ponder the complexities of the conveyed emotions.

Donning the exceptionally challenging role of Northup is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who perfects the intensity and desperateness required of his role. No easy task as his dialogue is predominantly steeped in body language rather than words, accentuating the ponderous mood that overshadows the entire film, leaving you teetering on the edge of your seat and losing popcorn down into the recesses of your shirt.

Apart from a few brief moments of diverting sub-plot provided by co-producer Brad Pitt, the poetic narrative of 12 years a slave flows like the tears that will almost certainly roll down your screwed up little face. After leaving the theatre, however, looking like a teenage girl, emotionally shattered by unrequited love, will be the least of your worries, as you contemplate the incalculable sins that humans are capable of inflicting upon each other in our dystopian world.