The topic of slavery is a sensitive one, rife with emotion, tragedy and injustice. Not many film makers would dare delve into the topics shocking core. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was effectively about slavery, but with an overcoat of comedic and stylised action elements to maintain enjoyment and conceal the depressing nature of slavery. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave however does not have any metaphorical overcoat, it conveys the atrocity and shocking events of slavery to deliver a powerful masterpiece.
The narrative of 12 Years a Slave resolves around the incredible true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and mercilessly sold into slavery. We follow him as he endures the brutal life of a slave and wishes only to see his wife and children once more. Solomon is used for his talents with the violin and is exploited to a cotton mill to brave brutal labouring work. Solomon’s story is the driving force behind this film, no special effects or complex narrative twists, purely the emotional force of his remarkable fight for freedom and justice. We all know the barbarity of slavery but witnessing a free man being ruthlessly pulled from his family is powerful. Witnessing Solomon suffer at the hands of malicious men drastically affects you. Feelings of pure hatred towards the malevolent slave owner Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, are shared by everyone and feelings of sorrow and sympathy toward Solomon are felt throughout. I praise Steve McQueen for tackling such an appalling issue, as he most certainly must have been concerned that audiences would not be interested in watching a film entirely about slavery. Despite that, he delivers a moving story that you can’t quite believe actually occurred in our history.
The most striking aspect of 12 Years a Slave is how McQueen purposely prolongs particular scenes of suffering and brutality. There are multiple occasions throughout the film in which you are thinking to yourself, okay you can cut now, please cut I don’t want to witness this any longer, and it doesn’t. The shot will continue for at least another five to ten seconds, elongating the scene more than is required for effect. During a whipping scene the circling camera reveals the physicality and the horrific punishment inflicted upon slaves. So, not only is Steve McQueen willing to produce a film purely about slavery, he is willing to deliberately extend the duration of a shot during particular distressing scenes. Even the few people rustling popcorn or constantly rummaging through a packet of crisps suddenly became silent. Now you may assume this is a negative element to the film but it is entirely the opposite. Now that may sound terrible of me but this is one of the factors that results in the film being so powerful and moving. It is a bold and genius piece of film making that evokes the emotions and distress in every audience member.
Another credible aspect of 12 Years a Slave is the acting. Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays slave owner Ford and Brad Pitt who plays Bass, all give incredible performances in their roles but the absolute stand out is Chiwetel Ejiofor. His performance as Solomon is so deep with emotional trauma that each scene he is in, you can clearly see the suffering he has endured and the will to live that drives him forward. There are particular scenes in the film, as you can imagine, that have Solomon enduring rather torturous actions. These scenes are so effective through the combination of Ejofor’s outstanding performance and McQueen’s brilliant prolonging of those particular scenes. What is so special about Ejiofor’s performance is how you can visible see the journey this character has been forced to embark upon and withstand. There is one particular close-up shot of Ejofor just looking at and away from the camera that lasts for about twenty five seconds. It is in those seconds and just by looking into his eyes do you see and feel Solomon’s pain and desire for freedom.
The cinematography was also stunning to behold. Beautiful naturalistic shots of plant life and sun rises all connote various meanings and add to the active viewing experience of the film. The clear visual motif that is repeatedly used throughout the film is that of a sun rise and sun set, used to express ideas of a new dawn and hope on the horizon for black people. The incredible acting, construction of the film and the way in which it is shot are all accompanied by a hair raising score by legendary composer Hans Zimmer, who has composed for films such as Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy. The score is touching and really adds to the stirring nature of the film’s narrative.
12 Years a Slave is an astounding piece of film making that will strike at the heart strings of many. Its frontal approach to such sensitive subject matter is brave and its lengthened conveying of agonising scenes is powerful. The incredible acting accompanied by an emotional story and memorable score, certainly makes 12 Years a Slave nothing short of a masterpiece. Your not going to be entertained watching 12 Years a Slave, your going to be taught and individually moved by a dark and realistic telling of one man’s experience in a cruel and visceral part of our history.