12 Years A Slave opens with the dreaded words ‘based on a true story’. This critic has lamented the tidal wave of biopics that has swamped the cineplexes this year, but this is something altogether more urgent, more draining, more worthy of the ‘for your consideration’ notices for which these films seem perfectly calibrated. Whip crack; let’s get to it.”
Hunger and Shame provided Steve McQueen with a fine calling card for an all-but-inevitable move to filmmaking Stateside, but on paper 12 Years A Slave would appear to be a departure for this enviably talented filmmaker. From hunger strikers and sex addicts to an epic prestige picture about slavery? True, but all provide harsh depictions of abuses afflicted on the body, and the cruelties of which we are truly capable. Backs are lashed and bodies are hung as submission is wrung from souls that, if not already broken, are on the cusp of breaking. Be assured; McQueen knows what he’s getting into.
Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) lived a free and relatively well-to-do life in Saratoga, New York, making a living as a talented fiddler, amongst other roles. Our story begins one fateful day in 1841, when Northup met some travelling performers who duped him with a promise of a job and a payday. He falls asleep drunk and awakens in shackles. It all happens at a pace Northup and we the audience can scarcely comprehend. He was born a freeman, and that freedom has been taken away from him in the blink of an eye. As a slave trader brutally brings several welts of a thick board across Solomon’s back, Ejiofor’s eyes are wide open in fear and confusion.
12 Years A Slave sidesteps any biopic pigeonholes by simple virtue of the fact that Northup’s journey into slavery and his years therein offer little respite. There are no ups and downs to break an overbearing mood or to offer respite to an attention-deficient audience. Northup is transported south, and injustices are heaped upon him and his cohorts with no hesitation or compunction. In adapting Northup’s book, screenwriter John Ripley captures the perverted mindset of the slave-trading South. They are viewed as property, and little more, a belief justified by a manipulated Christian doctrine. At one point, slaveowner Epps (Michael Fassbender) dictates his rules to his slaves and holding a Bible aloft. He quotes the Old Testament and states “That’s scripture.” If one man should stray from the path, he dies.
Initially sold by Paul Giamatti’s slave-trader, Northup arrives at the plantation belonging to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Here, whatever pride and indignant queries Northup still has are beaten out by enforcers Chapin (J.D. Evermore) and Tibeats (Paul Dano). Eventually, Northup’s clear talents and rebellious spirit force Force to sell him on to Epps, a cruel taskmaster. Few white people in this film are portrayed sympathetically, but there was no sympathy for these slaves in the South. Emancipation was two decades away and cotton needed picking. The cruel truth always wins out and McQueen never shies away from that reality. In that sense, 12 Years A Slave shares its overawing atmos of despair with the similarly-themed Mississippi Burning, as well as the broken passivity of the downtrodden African-Americans. DP Sean Bobbitt ensures the cruelty basks in clammy Louisiana sunshine, whilst sound design makes every whip crack sting and every blow land with a sickening thud.
The faces of the slaves convey so much. Ejiofor’s initial shock masterfully hardens to a passivity hiding a plan for survival. A game of bingo could be played with all the fine character actors filling in the world around Ejiofor. Fassbender proves a cruel standout, and Lupita Nyong’o shines as Patsy, Northup’s energetic fellow slave and centre of one of the film’s vital scenes, in which a perceived wrongdoing receives a disproportionate punishment. The arrival of Brad Pitt late in proceedings could distract from Northup’s plight, but this story is greater than anyone making this film The weight of history is a heavy burden, but McQueen bears it with dignity and a necessary does of brutality. Forgetting the mistakes of the past is not an option; 12 Years A Slave, without preaching or placating, won’t allow itself to be forgotten.