12 Years a Slave is a beautiful and emotionally haunting film that deserves to be recognised for the masterful work that it is. It is also unapologetically confronting and upsetting viewing where audiences need to be prepared for the sheer explicitness of its content. Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) presents a shockingly raw and unflinching depiction of America during its most shameful era.
The film tells the horrifically true story of the abduction of free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his journey to the blood-soaked cotton fields of America’s South in the 1840’s. While some critics have unfairly brandished and categorised the film as a horror movie, it does require the audience to endure the realities of slavery in it’s most brutal of forms.
While this is not the first film to deal with the sensitive subject of American slavery, it may be the most important. Last year, when Quentin Tarantino delved into the same subject matter in his highly awarded Django Unchained, he cleverly injected witty banter, humour and over-the-top violence to distance and provide relief for his audience; McQueen does not. Each sequence delivers one demoralising blow after another. The white slavers savagely whip, beat, berate and psychologically torture their ‘property’ to within an inch of their lives, all while quoting biblical scripture as their means of justification. In contrast, one of the most powerful and heart-rendering moments is when Solomon musters every ounce of his humility to let go and praise God during a funeral.
It is simply astonishing to note that this is only Director McQueen’s third feature film. He is truly one of the most extraordinary talents working today. While the film boasts one of the finest collections of talent the screen has ever seen, it’s McQueen’s meticulous and visually stylish handling of every single frame that should earn him a well deserved Best Director prize come Award’s season.
Surrounded by a Dream Team of actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Michael Fassbender (my pick for Best Supporting Actor), the film absolutely belongs to Ejiofor. While every single member of the cast delivers a performance worthy of the highest praise, it was Ejiofor’s heroic and exhaustively sympathetic performance as Northup that shattered this reviewer to tears when it was all said and done.
The film is unshakable and simply impossible to forget. I would label the film as a worthy spiritual sequel to Spielberg’s own difficult-to-view masterpiece Schindler’s List.
A cinematic and artistic achievement that is as rare and beautiful as it is punishing and heartbreaking.
The finest film of 2014 indeed.