New to cinemas – 10th January 2014
Slavery is such a controversial topic that any film that explores it would be expected to be overly reverent towards the victims and strongly condemning of the perpetrators. Douse the whole thing in melodrama, smother it in epic music and make it a tearjerker – you can’t go wrong!
But that’s the default Hollywood attitude towards things like this, and the application of such boring, lackadaisical filmmaking would do this immense story a tremendous injustice. Steve McQueen, already versed in creating intense cinema, chooses to tackle the job head on and ends up with one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen in my life.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man who lives in a respectable house with his wife and two kids until he is suckered into playing the fiddle (in which he shows expertise) for a travelling circus. Once he’s fulfilled his contract, his employers drug him and sell him into slavery, where he eventually arrives at a plantation owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After making enemies with a scummy carpenter (Paul Dano), he is shipped off into ownership of the cruel and terrifying Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) at whose hands Solomon and his fellow slaves endure physical and emotional abuse.
Throughout the film, Solomon’s identity is suppressed and he must come to terms with the gruelling nature of his new life. We see his status as a free man beaten from him within the first twenty minutes in an unbroken shot that seems to last forever – unfortunately the first of many. But Solomon develops in the opposite way to Django who had to convince himself he wasn’t a victim: the abuse Solomon is subjected to occasionally causes him to lash out, and at one point he berates a perpetually weeping slave in a moment of blind frustration.
Thus, he isn’t as altruistic as I was expecting, but nor is he completely self-serving; he just learns what not to do or say, and doesn’t do it. He is clearly keeping the goal of reuniting with his family in mind no matter how bleak things get, but his conflict comes from never having an exit strategy.
Complicating matters is the fact that the bad guys are individual white slavers, rather than white slavers in general. William Ford is a conflicted man, one who is probably only purchasing slaves to continue his family business and says ‘nigger’ not out of racism but because it’s part of his culture. As Solomon distinguishes himself, Ford shows him favour and even protects him when he makes enemies. The film isn’t excusing Ford, but rather placing every single character in a grey area and making the film a much more human and scarily realistic experience.
At the darkest end of that spectrum is Epps, chillingly rendered by Fassbender who I am now convinced is one of the greatest Irish actors currently working. Epps is a sleazy and heinously cruel bastard who does more than fit the stereotypical image of the evil slaver: he exceeds it. He strikes just as much fear through his quieter, more sinister moments as he does when his temper erupts, and thanks to Fassbender’s excellent performance, he joins the ranks of Daniel Plainview and Anton Chigurh as modern cinema’s darkest villains.
As its moral compass becomes more and more complex, the film becomes increasingly harder to watch, the scenes of torture especially. One difficult whipping scene has the distinction of being the first example of onscreen violence that has ever made me cry. McQueen has a point to make which he’s making without letting anything hold him back, and for the cast it seems that half the labour was spent convincing themselves to act out such an intense story.
I’ve never seen a film that has made me feel so guilty in all my life. I already knew the extent to which slaves suffered (as do most people) but seeing it brought to life with such brutality is a real eye-opener. For once I went through the whole film without thinking about anything else: this is pure, immersive, bruising cinema. Show me all the ‘horror’ movies and tearjerkers you like, but I guarantee none will be as upsetting as 12 Years a Slave.