Writer: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti
Running time: 133mins
The lowdown: Extraordinary, compelling and appalling, 12 Years a Slave sets the bar high for cinema in 2014. Recounting the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Louisiana of the antebellum South, it may stand as the definitive cinematic statement on the slave experience. An electric cast headed up by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and including Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, vividly bring this tragic chapter in America’s history to life.
The full verdict: After the hollow Hunger and the farcical Shame British director Steve McQueen finally earns the right to be called “filmmaker” rather than “artist turned director” with 12 Years a Slave.
Along with screenwriter John Ridley, McQueen has adapted Solomon Northup’s memoir of his hellish experiences into an overwhelming account of the cruelty and barbarism that was Southern slavery.
The basic plot is Slavery 101. Northup is abducted (he is an atypical free black man, living in Washington), sold into slavery, endures a spirit-breaking boat ride, a slave auction and then enslavement on various plantations.
Yet, rarely has cinema immersed you in this world as it does here.
The grotesquely genteel slave auction, buyers “window shopping” naked and abused people, children torn from parents, is depicted in all its horror.
Religion’s role as justification for the slave owner and soothing balm for the slaves and music as a tool of oppression (a vile song warns slaves against escape) and spiritual nourishment are also two aspects of slavery hitherto rarely touched upon.
McQueen puts his stark, detached visual style to good use depicting plantation life, where bodies are broken and ruined by the whip, rape and lynching are commonplace and hope is absent. But, his masterstroke is in assembling a cast who can shoulder the responsibility of breathing life into these characters.
Benedict Cumberbatch adds real shade to Northup’s first owner, Ford, a man whose relative kindnesses betray a crushed spirit and broken moral compass.
Two Pauls, Giamatti and Dano, are genuinely haunting as pitiless slave trader and cruel plantation foreman. Giamatti is conniving and criminal, Dano a moronic bully, but both know the law sides with them.
But, it is Fassbender as plantation owner Epps who makes the deepest cut. Similar to Ralph Fiennes’ camp commandant in Schindler’s List, Epps is dangerously mercurial, fuelled by drink, the Bible, and self-loathing coupled with unerring belief that these people are his property.
However, 12 Years a Slave belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor. Possibly Britain’s most versatile actor (remember him in Serenity and Love Actually?), he again commands the screen with a heartbreaking, restrained performance of a man attempting to salvage himself in the most horrific circumstances.
Running Ejiofor a close second is Nyong’o scintillating debut as slave girl Patsey, lusted over by Epps and whose fate will cause most audiences to crumble.
Only producer Brad Pitt’s cameo as an abolitionist Canadian seems like a slight misstep into “message” moviemaking, his dialogue making sure everyone knows slavery is a Bad Thing.
With Django Unchained, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas and now this film, Hollywood it seems is acknowledging the need to address the birth of the American nation.
And it will be fascinating to see how McQueen follows what may become a cinematic masterpiece.