There have been very few times I have left a cinema in my life and been completely blown away by a film.
Fortunately and unsurprisingly 12 Years a Slave was such an occasion where I immediately knew I had just watched an instant classic.
The film, directed by Steve McQueen, is based off the real life events of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York in pre-civil war America. Solomon is a smart, polite and cultured musician and carpenter living an idyllic life with his wife and two children.
He is tricked to go to Washington where two men drug Solomon and sell him as a slave where his new life in the South begins.
The first thing to note about the film is the excellent performances from the cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the part of Solomon absolutely perfectly, bringing the issue of slavery to a much more personal level like I’ve never seen before.
Leonardo DiCaprio said in a recent interview that the best thing a film can do is immerse an audience into somebody else’s mindset and this is so true of Solomon Northup.
His character takes us on an epic journey of pain, love and anger and we feel every last drop of emotion that Ejiofor has to squeeze.
Micheal Fassbenders portrayal of crazed and abusive farm owner Edwin Epps is perhaps even more impressive if that’s possible.
Epps showcases the ultimate ruthlessness, brutality and basically the reality of what slavery was like.
Some of the scenes are hard to watch, particularly the scene where Patsy, a female slave portrayed by the wonderfully talented Lupita Nyong’o, is being relentlessly lashed with a whip by Epps.
The thing is I’ve seen much more violent films and scenes before but the thing that made this harder to endure was that the violence felt so much more authentic, because the characters were portrayed with such realism.
There are lot’s of shots in the film of the beautiful scenery that surrounds the slaves as they work and go about their day, which provides a sharp contrast showing that among all this beauty in nature lies something truly ugly: Slavery.
One scene which stuck out in particular was where Solomon is tied up and left with a noose around his neck with only the tips of toes keeping him up and literally keeping him alive. While this happens over the course of a day the rest of the slaves look on, going about their day including the children showing just how accustomed they all are to this sort of violence.
I always think it’s a good way of judging a film by seeing how many people go to the toilet while it’s on. When I went to see 12 Years a Slave nobody went to the toilet. Which tells me that the rest of the audience were as completely absorbed in the story as me.
Many people have been comparing 12 Years a slave with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained which I think is a mistake to do. The only things the films have in common is the issue of slavery but that’s it. Each director goes about it in their own unique way to showcase the issue with Tarantino going about it in his usual witty tongue in cheek dialogue kind of way. While the ending leaves the audience with a sense of justice as Django slaughters all those who have wronged him, 12 years a slave ends with no such note.
We get the feeling that Solomon, despite being happy to be back with his family, knows that nothing he can do will give him back all those lost years. Also the ease at which Solomon is kidnapped suggests that it would not be an isolated occurrence and would in fact happen quite regularly.
We all know that Slavery happened obviously but leaving the cinema after watching 12 Years a Slave I felt as though I had been shown the true brutal honest reality of it in a way that cinema has never seen before.
McQueen achieved this through fantastic performances from his cast, solid dialogue and by not shying away from the violence.
Thankfully as I write this 12 Years a Slave has been rewarded for it’s brilliance with 9 Oscar nominations. Unfortunately it is also up against Gravity, Captain Phillips and American Hustle. It’s been a good few months for cinema, long may it continue.