It is the plight of the reviewer that, even as you sit and watch a film universally praised by critics, at times you actively seek out a flaw; something that nudges it away from perfection, almost to the extent that you lose focus on the rest of the film. But in the case of 12 Years A Slave you simply have to give up looking for that flaw – Steve McQueen has taken Solomon Northup’s powerful, seminal first-hand account and turned it into a piece of cinematic mastery.
Northup’s tale is one that typifies yet transcends the historical context in which it was written. Many comparisons have been made with Anne Frank’s diary, as the protagonist, tricked into slavery, is led across numerous plantations, encountering torture, abuse and cruelty at the hand of numerous oppressors.
12 Years a Slave represents a progression, an apotheosis for McQueen. 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame were haunting, artistic visions of humanity, crafting emaciated or sexually distraught figures leading claustrophobic, tragic lives. The stories had an inevitability to them. What McQueen does in the case of 12 Years is to use that same physical degradation, depicted expertly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, but place it in a vast, expansive, yet terribly human canvas. The ability to recreate the claustrophobia of Bobby Sands or the mental plight of Brandon’s hypersexuality is no longer the central focus for McQueen but instead these techniques are purely nuances in a true story. One scene depicts this expertly – Northup’s realisation of his original incarceration is done in a black room, a solitary beam of light given to him as he comes to understand his life has been stripped away. Only moments before, we had warm, coloured bulbs juxtaposed with opulent dining, to be replaced by an atonal, empty atmosphere.
McQueen is unflinching in his imagery, true to the original piece. We are not spared the brutality of Fassbender’s Epps, nor the repercussions this has both on Northup but also on young female slave Patsey, played by an incredible Lupita Nyong’o. Her role is a fulcrum for a large part of the film, with much of the tragedy of the story resting with her and the experiences she is forced to cope with. Late on in the film this reaches a head, and as a viewer you are forced to flinch with the whip crack, expecting the camera to cut away and give you some small sense of relief. The moment simply never comes – instead the harrowing, underlying truth remains, for many this pain was first hand and unending. Camera movements are frenetic, panning close to the faces of Ejiofor then Nyong’o in turn, alighting eventually on Fassbender’s hateful, rage-filled expression as he continues to abuse this young, innocent woman.
Every character is three-dimensional, intricate and woven into Northup’s arduous trials. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s plantation owner Ford, whilst seemingly mild by the standards of some of his counterparts, is still a man made rich by the exploitation and subjugation of a race, and we are forced, rightly, never to forget that. It is impossible to examine the film without taking on board its proximity to award season – one likely to commend the principle cast as well as McQueen’s talents. But it will not rest on these laurels alone. 12 Years a Slave represents not only an artistic masterpiece, but a long overdue examination of the monstrous qualities and capacities of a seemingly developed, human civilization less than two centuries ago.