12 Years A Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o.
Rating: 9 (out of 10)
Those of us who have had to type out Chiwetel Ejiofor's name several times (for films such as Children of Men, 2012, Kinky Boots) have committed it to memory; the rest of the cinema-going public will learn it by Oscar time, with Ejiofor a certain candidate in the Best Actor race.
Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave is a grueling film, slavery from the somewhat novel perspective of a free man kidnapped and sold into servitude in 1841. Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a man of some renown in his community of Saratoga, New York. While his wife and children are away, Solomon accepts an offer to earn extra money playing his violin in a sort of highbrow travelling circus. Instead his new friends take him to Washington, where Solomon is tricked, drugged and wakes up in shackles.
The true story follows Solomon as his old identity is beaten out of him and a new one given ("You are Platt, a slave from Georgia," he is told over and over, while being paddled so hard that the wood splinters). He is shuttled between various vendors and purveyors of the slave trade, each dangerous and complicit in his own way.
One is a man by the name of Freeman (Paul Giamatti) who runs a macabre upscale market, where black men and women stand naked for inspection while buyers sip drinks. Here a woman is separated from her children, and brother divided from sister. "My sentimentality extends the length of a coin," he explains. Solomon's first master is the deceptively kindly Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognizes Solomon's superior abilities, taking advice about his timber plantation and gifting his slave a violin. Paul Dano is a mean and stupid crew boss, who can't stomach the fact that Solomon's reach might exceed his grasp: when things boil over, Ford refuses to hear the truth, transferring Solomon to another slave owner to fulfill a debt.
Solomon's lot worsens with the move: his new master is notorious "slavebreaker" Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a moody, drunken sadist who works his slaves in the cotton fields all day, then wakens them up at night to dance for him. The men and women who pick the least cotton are whipped daily, regardless of age; ditto if their count from the previous day falters. Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, excellent) picks more cotton than any man, and becomes Epps' pet and prey come nightfall, making her an easy target for Epps' jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). "God gave her to me," says Epps simply.
Possible salvation comes courtesy of a Canadian (Brad Pitt) who has spent two decades travelling America but is still shocked by conditions in the south. A simple post-script tells of Solomon's true, surprising fate.
Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender in Hunger and Shame, wrings menace from the small things, such as the tightening of violin strings or the beating paddles of a riverboat heading south.
12 Years A Slave is notable among other movies about slavery because of its palpable sense of long days and commonplace peril. How wives went mad with boredom and isolation on sweltering southern plantations. How that boredom bred cruelty and apathy. And how shocking violence became commonplace. One of the most powerful scenes features Solomon lynched and choking, treading mud below his feet, as the day slowly goes on around him.
There's little reprieve from the misery, making McQueen's film tough viewing (and making me wonder if Fassbender will ever get a table in a restaurant again). It's unlikely you will want to see 12 Years A Slave more than once; but given the taut story and fine performances, once is a must.
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