In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American man is abducted and sold into slavery in the Southern US. Northup never gives up on getting back to his family, but must find a way to survive his time as a slave in order to find a way home.
There has been much talk about 12 Years a Slave, not least because of Madonna’s insistence that she text her way through an early screening of the film. Steve McQueen’s third film comes to Irish screens after a year where African American history has been greatly explored on screen but, compared to some of the more rambling projects that we have seen recently, 12 Years a Slave focuses on a microcosm, in order to tell a larger story.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply wonderful as Solomon Northup. Ejiofor plays Northup with grace and care, showing us a man who is all too aware that he must pick his battles carefully. As plantation owner Ford, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a character with kindness in his heart, but a blind eye that he is all to willing to turn, making Ford perhaps a more dangerous man that he seems. Michael Fassbender truly lets go as Edwin Epps, tapping into some vein of inner madness and cruelty as a cruel plantation owner. There is madness in Fassbender here, one that makes an already brutal film that much harder to watch. Making her on screen debut, Kenyan director turned actress Lupita Nyong’o is nothing short of sensational as valued but abused slave Patsey. Even as she is abused and tortured, there is a dignity in Patsey’s eyes, and a desperation that is both tragic and understandable.
Based on a true story, the genius of 12 Years a Slave is the focus on the everyday life of Northup, and the tragedy of his fall from grace. Screenwriter John Ridley does not pull any punches when it comes to he suffering that slaves endured, but also allows the characters’ actions to speak for themselves, and the audience to make judgement.
Director Steve McQueen truly encourages his actors to let go, and lose themselves in their roles, while never shying away from the cruelty of the slave system, and the people who held it up. Northup’s salvation is a rather deus ex machina moment, and a little unsatisfying, but there are also enough emotion and seeming contradictions in this to leave the audience satisfied and arguing about the film, long after leaving the cinema.
12 Years a Slave is a brutal and uncompromising look at slavery in the southern US. Each actor gets their moment, and their chance to shine, and they grab it with both hands. Neither director McQueen or writer Ridley shy away from the graphic violence of the story, but neither do they glory in it either. The result is a moving, engaging and horrifying film that challenges and satisfies.