Film Pop: 12 Years a Slave

Year:  2013
Director:  Steve McQueen
Stars:  Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o
IMDb

Following Her, the second Best Picture nominee I managed to see on the weekend was the film everyone’s been talking about, the early favourite for the victory, 12 Years a Slave.  Both my girlfriend and I had been eagerly awaiting its UK release, even if our local cinema couldn’t make up its mind when it was going to have it in.  Based on the memoir of the same name written by Solomon Northup in 1853, 12 Years a Slave is the third feature film from British director Steve McQueen (and the third to feature Michael Fassbender).

12yasSolomon Northup is a black man living freely with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York in the year 1841.  One day he is approached by two travelling entertainers who want him to join them as a violinist, only to be plied with alcohol one night and find himself in chains the next morning.  Now in the possession of white strangers, he is shipped down to New Orleans, given the new name “Platt” and sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Ford is (relatively) civil towards Northup, but is forced into moving him on after Solomon’s altercation with vicious carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano).  He comes into the possession of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a violent drinker who puts Northup to work in the cotton fields along with the rest of his slaves, the best picker among whom is young Patsey (Nyong’o).  Vulnerable Patsy becomes the object of Epps’ infatuation and he soon rapes her, defying the attempted protection of Solomon and the efforts of Epps’ wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) to revile her at all times.  Northup, aided by travelling worker Bass (Brad Pitt), finally makes his companions in the north aware of his situation and is brought back to his family, not before being forced to brutally whip Patsey under Epps’ coercion.

12 Years a Slave is for certain a good film; it goes further than almost anything before it in depicting the cruel reality of slavery in America.  Ejiofor produces a masterful, moving performance as a man fighting the worst injustice imaginable to be reunited with his family.  However, overall I felt a little let down by the hype surrounding the movie. It didn’t really shock me like I was expecting it to, but maybe that’s less the film’s fault and more the result of the industry’s tendency to fill feature after feature with awful human behaviour and the media’s subsequent eagerness to shout about how shocking it is.  Maybe it’s just me, but I know I’m not the first to say this.

12yas2 As well as this, It has been criticised by some for the fact that the director and lead actor are black British rather than African American, because they don’t have the heritage rooted in slavery to draw from; I admit to being too inexperienced to comment on this meaningfully.  It’s also received a decidedly mixed reception for its historical accuracy, variously being praised for its brutal depiction of the treatment of slaves and condemned for its omission of important themes from the book (such as the slaves’ never-ending attempts to escape).

Ultimately there’s nevertheless no denying that 12 Years a Slave is a film that will go down in history for the right reasons, and it’s a film that you need to watch.  To me it’s a victim of great overhyping, but it’s still a very good film and one of the top contenders for the top prize at this year’s Academy Awards.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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