Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars
As evidenced by his first two features, Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen is fearless in his approach to difficult subject matters. The same is true here in his unflinching and unforgettable third feature, 12 Years a Slave.
The film is based on the true life account of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in New York who was deceived and sold into a life of slavery from 1841 to 1853. The film opens with Northup already in this role working on a sugar cane plantation and then brings us back to his family life in New York leading up to his deception. The men who will eventually drug and betray him come in the form of Brown and Hamilton, played by Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam, who offer Solomon the promise of violin work in Washington DC. The whole sequence is reminiscent of a sort of hellish version of Pinocchio being lead off by the circus folk and it plays out with a dreadful inevitability that left my stomach churning. When Solomon is awoken in chains, Ejiofor’s bewilderment is heart-wrenching as he struggles between fighting for his identity and recognizing how powerless he’s just been rendered.
Ejiofor is at the center of an embarrassment of acting talent throughout this film with even smaller roles occupied by the likes of Brad Pitt, Michael K Williams, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and last year’s Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Benedict Cumberbatch has a key role as Ford, Northrup’s first owner. Ford is initially presented as a sympathetic man, even seen as such by Solomon himself, but the way McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley disillusion us of the very notion of this idea is masterful. For all Ford’s sympathetic looks and guilt about the institution he is undoubtably a part of, he will still allow a family to be split at auction and won’t hear a word of Solomon’s story despite recognizing his intelligence. Actions speak louder than words and under Ford, Solomon still suffers through some of the harshest tortures in the film. Including selling Solomon off again to the monstrous Edwin Epps in the film’s final act.
Coming from both Hunger and Shame, Michael Fassbender successfully reteams with director McQueen again as Epps. Fassbender is fascinating to watch as his character rages against his slaves with frightening conviction he backs up with biblical scripture. He is further driven to violence by his complete inability to deal with his unhinged infatuation with his most productive slave girl, Patsey (incredible newcomer Lupita Nyong’o).
Truly however the film belongs to Chiwetel Ejifor who imbues Northup with an unwavering determination to not only survive his ordeal, but as he says, to live. To not give into despair. Moreover when it comes to his re-emancipation, we feel the weight of the time lost as much as the relief of freedom.
12 Years A Slave opens is now playing , I screened it as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, you can read our red carpet coverage from the event with an interview from the film’s star Michael Fassbender.