Featuring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: John Ridley
Movie website: www.12yearsaslave.com/
2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 13–19 Jan, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 21–26 Jan, 8pm
Verdict: Uncompromising and at times hard to watch, this powerful work is surely the last cinematic word on slavery.
In pre-Civil War America slavery is entrenched in the South, while blacks in the North live in relative freedom. When upstate New York musician Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is abducted, smuggled South and sold into slavery, he begins a life of brutal subjugation. Lost to his wife and children, his freedom, dignity and even his name are taken from him. As the years mount, hope of rescue dims, and his fight for survival exacts an ever-greater toll. Based on the astounding real-life experience of Solomon Northup, as recorded in his biographical writings.
There have been numerous films set in the slavery period of the American South, but none, at least that I have seen, as uncompromisingly realist as 12 Years A Slave. Director Steve McQueen is unflinchingly committed to confronting his audience with the atrocities of the era resurrected in dramatised form, as unpalatable as these may be. Indeed, to pull back on the horror would be to dishonour the author on whose life story the film is based, and the lives of those who suffered through this bleak period of American history.
The film grips like a vice, but the depiction of torture, physical and mental, and the profound degradation that was the lot of the enslaved, is gruelling to the point of being hard to watch at times. There is nowhere for the viewer to hide, no possibility of seeking refuge in “it’s only a movie” self-talk. This account of Solomon Northup’s twelve year ordeal as a slave is fictionalised, of course, but it’s a safe bet that the extreme cruelty and inhumanity his white masters inflict on their dark-skinned human property is as it was.
That said, the argument might be made that the characterisation of vile slave-owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his equally vile wife (Sarah Paulson) as unrelentingly psychopathic sadists is over the top. Doubtless there were monsters like these among the slave-owners, but dramatically there is a danger of pushing these characters into stereotype, undermining the emotional impact of their grotesquely inhumane actions. We recoil, certainly, and the gut-wrenching images of suffering are powerful and linger, but perhaps distract from a more important message embedded in the film that is universal and transcends historical context. That is, that extreme power warps and corrupts, and ultimately erodes the humanity of both tyrant and victim, and of the very society of which they are part.
In one of the most haunting scenes of the film, for example, Solomon is strung up to a tree with arms tied and a noose around his neck, forced to balance on tiptoes to avoid suffocation. As he struggles to survive hour upon hour, other slaves go about their assigned tasks with nary a glance in his direction, clearly desensitised to such sights. Public torture has long become normalised.
There are some marvellous performances, with lead Chiwetel Ejiofor the standout. Michael Fassbinder is compelling, despite his overdrawn character. The appearances of Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt verge on cameo. Casting lesser-knowns in their roles might have given their characters more oxygen in their own right.
But these are minor quibbles. 12 Years A Slave is a powerful work, and may well be the last cinematic word on slavery. I’m not sure there is anything left to say that hasn’t been said resoundingly well here.
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