I had heard about the success of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave from news across the pond and was intrigued. It tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a freeman who was kidnapped and then forced into a life as a slave. Undoubtedly, it’s these kind of gritty dramas that win Oscars and after the success of films such as Django Unchained and Lincoln in the past year too, the cynic inside me thought that the filmmakers were simply chasing an Oscar and picked the perfect subject to do so. How wrong could I have been? It feels true, honest – and with Steve McQueen at the helm, I shouldn’t really have even questioned his integrity and Spike Lee seems to agree.
As you may have noticed from my previous articles, I have a strong appreciation for filmmakers that maintain their integrity through their work, who create honest films, resisting the temptation of Hollywood funding (and their meddling). In terms of this, 12 Years A Slave is one of the most complete films I have seen. It’s purpose is not to entertain, to mould these real-life characters into marketable entities or even to make you want to watch it again and again.
What it does is bring a 160 year old story to the modern audience and informs us what seems to be first-hand of what went on. It is one of the first films and stories that is able to exhibit slavery in an empathetic way. Narrated by the protagonist, who is born in a position similar to that of the audience, a freeman, and then forced into experiencing slavery, something very alien to today’s cinema-goers; we are given an insight into a truly disgraceful time of our history.
It is often at times incredibly difficult to watch. There are several acts of violence that you will wince and grimace at, but seem oh so real – most notably so when Patsy, the plantation’s most successful worker and undoubtedly the master’s favourite, is whipped. If the typical camera set-up of a whipping (over-the-victim’s shoulder tied to a stake with the master out of focus) isn’t already enough, for around a second there is a reverse shot, where we see first-hand the brutal infliction of the whip on Patsy’s body. Although special effects would have been used to make this appear real, this shot illustrates how the film attempts to delve deeper into what went on during the slave trade in America, which is only complimented by its empathetic tone. I can only speak for myself and say that I was never taught about this period in my history lessons; so my understanding of it has largely come from films, much to my embarrassment. No thanks to Tarantino’s spaghetti western, Django, and its role in a number of Hollywood films, I had become de-senstised to this subject slightly. However, 12 Years A Slave, in my opinion, with its footage that feels raw, reignites the hatred and disgust that you feel when you are first told about this period in American history. Michael Fassbender and his wife in the film do brilliant jobs of solidifying these feelings in their portrayal of the hypocritical master and wife.
The footage feels raw, like I said previously. As far as it seems, the story isn’t manipulated in any way in order to chase box office numbers or popularity – except condensing the 12 year story into a digestible film narrative of a little over 2 hours, which we can let off.
In terms of direction, very rarely are we accustomed to Steve McQueen making up our mind up for us. I noticed he puts the masters and the slaves on an equal level and it is for the viewer to digest what they are watching and make their own judgements, helping to paint a true representation of the happenings. No one can be true to say that this is exactly what happened but McQueen’s representations makes a pretty believable argument.
One exception to this would be during the first act when we see Solomon Northup during both of his lives as a freeman and a slave interwoven non-chronologically. However, this helps to aid our understanding of the paradoxical direction which his life has taken on and the depth of the situation he finds himself in, as well as inciting both huge sympathy and anger on our part as he is robbed of a family life, his clothes and his identity.
My favourite shot of the film was very difficult to watch however I felt it characterised the entire film beautifully. Solomon is hanging from a noose in the dark foreground with his hands tied and his tip toes turning and twitching in the mud below, enough to keep him alive. In the background, we see the half-finished yet beautifully manufactured building which Solomon had constructed, much to the unfair critique from the overseer. Solomon had used his skills learnt as a freeman to build the structure and it was clearly noticeable to be of a great standard. However, rather than finish it (arguably a metaphor of his life as a freeman and/or of his family), he is unfairly treated to fight for his life in front of mostly unfazed slaves who had become used to this kind of action.
I hadn’t read a lot about this film before going in as I wanted to experience it without setting any more expectations than what the trailer had already instilled in me. I was very pleased to see Film4’s involvement. I was aware that it was largely a British film due to the actors and director who were involved so it was great for Film4 to be in on the act. This is not only because I love seeing the British film industry attract worldwide attention – but because I knew that the next 2 hours of my time would be well worth it, such is my respect and admiration for the content they tend to help create.
My final word on this film is as follows: 12 Years A Slave is as brilliant, complete and honest a film you will see, which I was immersed in as much as I kind of wanted it to end – such as I feel it should be when a film explores an utterly disgusting period in time. It feels odd and rather (extremely) distasteful that any filmmaker would want to exploit this era in any other way. I have to agree with Spike Lee on this one, too.
If you want to have the complete experience, go to the cinema. However, if you don’t mind, don’t; just make sure you don’t wait too long to watch it.