12 Years A Slave (2014)

12 Years A Slave (2014)

"I stole this from the set of Sherlock."
“I stole this from the set of Sherlock.”

Twitter Plot Summary: Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1841 Saratoga, is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Five Point Summary:

1. Kidnapped!
2. The hanging scene.
3. Cotton pickin’.
4. The flogging scene.
5. Freedom.

After Quentin Tarantino got himself in hot water after claiming slavery wasn’t covered in sufficient detail by filmmakers (clearly ignoring Lincoln which came out in the same month as Django Unchained), Steve McQueen (not that one) returns with his third movie covering that exact topic, however unlike Tarantino’s effort this isn’t a pulp Western. Based on the real memoirs of Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave recounts the tale of a free man being kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he remained for… sorry, how many years was it again? That’s the extent of the story as far as narrative twists and turns go, but there is plenty of depth to all of the characters, from scripture-quoting slave owners to their slaves coping with their circumstances.

Unsurprisingly there are several scenes that are extremely powerful, most notably the hanging of Northup and the whipping of one of his fellow slaves. Both scenes feature extended uncut shots that emphasise the trauma and the horror, designed specifically to temporarily make you forget you’re watching a film. These are incredibly powerful moments that remain indelible in your mind for a long time after the film’s closing credits.

Chiwetel Ejiofor puts in a stunning and powerful performance as Solomon. An intelligent free man who doesn’t give in to despair, which helps him through all of the dark times that follow. Whilst Solomon doesn’t develop per se, there is sufficient depth to his character in more ways than one, often telling a huge amount of story just from a few facial expressions.

Fassbender wasn't wearing trousers or, indeed, underwear.
Fassbender wasn’t wearing trousers or, indeed, underwear.

Michael Fassbender also features heavily, and no wonder given that he is to McQueen as Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton. His cotton plantation owner Epps is unpleasant on the surface, but he’s got many layers that slowly reveal themselves as the story progresses. He’s still thoroughly unpleasant, but the characterisation and Fassbender’s performance make him an intriguing figure, but not a sympathetic one. That’s not quite the case with Cumberbatch’s slave owner Ford, who tries to at least be kind to his slaves and as a result, because he doesn’t realise he’s doing it, is perhaps all the more monstrous for it.

There’s an equally strong performance from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, as a fellow slave of Solomon and a particular favourite of Epps. It would have perhaps been more interesting to see her story rather than Solomon’s, but then that would have potential to be ridiculously bleak and borderline unwatchable simply for the content matter.

I will throw one complaint at 12 Years, and that is the fact it never feels like that much time has passed. Whilst the entire situation is difficult and unpleasant, it feels like Northup has only been in slavery for a few months or, at best, a couple of years. With that said, it would be an entirely unfortunate couple of years if that was the case, every possible calamity that could befall a man wrongfully ensconced as a slave. Just a few tweaks to indicate the passage of time would be more than sufficient.

Actually, there’s one more complaint, which despite being relatively minor actually emphasises how futile the journey has been. It’s not a spoiler to say that Northup was eventually freed from slavery (that whole 12 years thing, remember?), but the final text scrawl after he regains his freedom makes his entire story almost moot, that despite being a free man justice was not served – the men responsible for his kidnapping were not sent to prison, nor indeed did they receive any punishment for their actions. Justice should be incorruptible, a constant, applicable to all, yet despite everything he had gone through the system failed Solomon Northup, and that is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

Score: 4.5/5

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