Artist and film director Steve McQueen is a bit of a mixed bag in the eyes of this reviewer. Whilst Hunger was a taut and compelling vignette of Bobby Sands, Shame wasted what started as an interesting premise on flabby pacing, aimless meandering and an awkwardly outdated portrayal of homosexuality. However with 12 Years A Slave, McQueen seems to have finally found his perfect balance, that of a lingering character study presented against the larger political backdrop of an uncomfortable theme. 12 Years A Slave tells the real life story of free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is duped and drugged before being sold into slavery, based on his own 1853 autobiography. States away from his family and unable to produce his freedom papers, Solomon must endure cruelty upon cruelty whilst keeping his being literate a secret. Needless to say, 12 Years is brutal but necessary viewing.
Surely no one can claim to being ignorant of the viciousness of America’s history of enslavement, but McQueen finds innovative ways of truly and bleakly presenting the human experience at the hands of such a regime. When Solomon awakens to find himself in chains, his claims of being a free man are met with the unforgiving and repeated smack of a bat on his back, and the excellent sound editing coupled with McQueen’s absolutely unwaveringly stationary camera placement make for a visceral and terrifying few minutes.
McQueen is a director known for unrelenting shots on discomforting scenes, but whereas in Shame it amounted to an aura of self-indulgence, in 12 Years we as an audience become unwilling participants in the acts of cruelty, our complicit and silent observation as damning as the horrifying acts unfolding. This is a film that grabs you and forces you to acknowledge the sheer awfulness of a past not explored enough by cinema. For example, in the slave market scene where Solomon and others are forced to stand, degraded as animals in a zoo, some naked, and being presented as no more than pieces of meat, whilst wealthy white men like William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) price them up. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera weaves in and out of rooms, past slave after slave as if we ourselves are being given the sales pitch. It’s a gut churning way of making us connect with the subject emotionally rather than through an objective history textbook lens, and it’s extraordinarily successful throughout the film.
Hans Zimmer’s score is equally haunting, punching through the film like Solomon’s petrified heartbeat. But this really is Ejiofor’s film. It’s impossible not to feel his despair, often when it is simply his eyes doing the talking. Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon as man who refuses to give up on his hope and dignity is beautifully judged, a state of mind completely counter balanced by fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who becomes a victim of plantation owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) lust and feels utterly defeated. Nyong’o and Fassbender are both utterly fantastic. Where other actors are concerned, there are strong performances going on, but after a while it can feel like there’s a factory line of Oscar baiting going on as a list of famous names perform their racist monologues and leave the story.
But the worst part of 12 Years A Slave, one which is truly my only complaint about the film, is the inclusion of Brad Pitt in the cast list. Whilst he is to be thanked and commended for his contribution as a producer with his Plan B company, his inclusion as an actor is woefully misjudged. Whilst there are a string of big names lending their services to the story (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti) they are much more chameleonic than a man like Pitt. This is not to discredit his acting, he does everything perfectly in his brief scenes, but Brad Pitt in a film nowadays is always some facet of Brad Pitt; two time winner of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive ‘accolade’, and having him smack in the middle of a film of such as this as one of the only sympathetic white characters just feels awkward and hokey, and the Jesus-like carpenter image he casts is just too much.
That being said, 12 Years A Slave is ultimately a brilliant film, one which had my fellow cinema goers silenced, a respect unfortunately not awarded to most films at the best of times. Visually innovative, brutally presented and excellently acted, 12 Years A Slave is an important piece of a cinema that I hope lingers on in discussion long past the standard award season hype.