12 YEARS A SLAVE || 2013, USA / UK || Biopic || Directed by – Steve McQueen / Written by – John Ridley (based on the book Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup) / Produced by – Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Aaron Milchan, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad, John Ridley, Tessa Ross, Bianca Stigter / Music by – Hans Zimmer / Cinematography – Sean Bobbitt / Editing by – Joe Walker / Production design by – Adam Stockhausen / Starring – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard / Running time: 134 mins.
Films on slavery are so rare that even before 12 Years a Slave, a film on black slavery in the United States made by a black filmmaker, was released, it already felt like a landmark moment in the history of film. As it happens, there were plenty of other reasons to praise it.
Steve McQueen’s film is based on the memoirs by Solomon Northup of the same name. Its story begins in 1841, in New York City, where violinist Northup lived with his family as a free black man. One night, during a touring gig, he goes out drinking and the following morning he wakes up chained. He is kidnapped into slavery and sent to a Louisiana Plantation run by a particularly despicable man (Michael Fassbender).
McQueen’s unflinching gaze remains unchanged despite the size of this project compared to his previous two. The film rarely resorts to easy melodrama and, when it makes use of it, it does so meaningfully. On the other hand, the film is not only a succession of scenes of brutal bigotry and torture, although such scenes are there and can occasionally be quite tough to watch. 12 Years a Slave is fundamentally balanced and follows no liberal agendas. As such, the scenes of racist brutality are balanced by dramatic brilliance and even a wish to represent the psychology of the relationship between master and slave. And still, it doesn’t alienate the viewer in the process, which is why Northup is like Ulysses and his main goal and ambition is to return home to his loving family against all odds and despite the opposition of the horrors that are happening all around him.
Such ambition would not have been accomplished without the great performances by the film’s cast. Fassbender, in his third collaboration out of three McQueen films with the director, is at his most despicable but never slips into the caricature of the Southern slaveowner; Lupita Nyong’o’s is handed a challenging role as her first in a film, the resul of which is one of the finest cinematic debuts by any actress ever, and, of course; Chiwetel Ejiofor who ably carries much of the film on his shoulders in his portrayal of the leading character. It is even more shocking to see his Northup in all his grace, intelligence and elegance at the start of the film, before being thrown into a nightmarish situation; the abrupt shift in narrative, while expected, is all the more shocking. – 5/5