‘Worthy’ is the word that comes to mind when I think of 12 Years a Slave. This can often mean a film is dull, pretentious and unengaging, but this is not the case here. Steve McQueen has made an important and powerful piece of art.
It tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was sold into slavery in 1841. We follow him as he moves from owner to owner and suffers unbelievable torment. The film does not hold back in its portrayal of the suffering of slaves on plantations, but it never seems to revel in it, nor use it unjustly to get us emotionally invested. It is simply honest. A true horror story if ever there was one.
Visually it’s breathtaking. The scenic backdrop of the deep south is wonderfully contrasted with the brutality inflicted upon human beings who are considered nothing more than property. It is, too, a relief to see an historical epic that doesn’t feel the need to use grey or gold colours to signify that this happened a long time ago. Yet again a choice that is, quite simply, honest.
There are some knock-out performances: Michael Fassbender is the best he has ever been, as a drunk, violent plantation owner. Every look and movement he gives is terrifyingly true. Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic as a kind but weak man who treats his slaves like people, but cannot bring himself to free Solomon, despite believing that he was once a free man.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon with quiet dignity. He is silent for much of the film, a man who is trying to keep his head down and out of trouble. It is through his eyes that we see his suffering and courage. McQueen could have easily used a voice over (as the film is based on a book written by the real Solomon Northup recounting his experiences), but he doesn’t, and this allows us to go through the ordeal with Solomon; making the viewing particularly deep and personal.
One bum note is sounded: Brad Pitt’s performance as a wise and noble white man leaves much to be desired, and is perhaps the only fake element in the movie. Though, apparently, Pitt got the film off the ground, through his production company Plan B, so praise to him for that.
12 Years a Slave is not a ground breaking film, but that does not mean that it is not important one. It is shocking to think that slavery is still a problem in the world today, and it is a subject that we simply cannot ignore. McQueen’s telling of Northup’s story is an honest and moving depiction of man’s inhumanity to man. A must see.
Drama, Biography, History
BD/DVD Release Date:
12th May 2014 (UK)
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 – 1.78:1
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch
Buy: 12 Years a Slave [DVD] or [Blu-ray]