Director Steve McQueen’s third feature tackles the tough issue of slavery through the eyes of Solomon Northup. Based on the best-selling memoir, 12 Years a Slave shows the horrifying experience of being kidnapped and sold to be a slave during the late 1800’s.
Tackling the slave trade is a bold move for a filmmaker, especially within their third feature, however this is exactly what McQueen has done to a fantastic effect. 12 Years a Slave does not approach its subject lightly. Told from a frank perspective and often viscerally honest with portrayal of violence and treatment of its characters, McQueen finds a fantastic balance between not shying away from its subject, its violence and often hard-to-watch portrayal of human treatment and the beautiful cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, the fantastic script from John Ridley and masterful direction from McQueen.
Following the kidnapping, Solomon is passed around several plantations however the bulk of time is spent at Edwin Epps’ cotton farm. Epps believes that abuse of slaves is written into the bible and runs his plantation accordingly. This results in many scenes of intense reservation from Solomon – portrayed perfectly by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Ejiofor portrays much of the film in silence, using looks and expressions for Solomon’s feelings to be known. Within one breathtaking sequence, McQueen’s camera holds on Solomon’s face whilst struggling with his sense of self and what the consequences are of following suit with everybody else. The emotion portrayed within the one single look is utterly moving and demonstrates the utter majesty of both Ejiofor’s performance and McQueen’s direction.
The supporting cast is equally as strong as Ejiofor – Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamtti, Brad Pitt, Sarah Poulson all deliver fantastic performances as those in power and keeping Solomon and the other slaves in line – many of whom convey the true revulsion of their actions. However the outstanding supporting performance stems from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. She plays abused slave Patsy and – equally with Ejiofor – conveys many emotions underneath the thinly veiled looks of disgust and anger at the actions of Fassbender’s Epps.
Throughout, McQueen uses long takes in order to ensure the horror sinks in during various scenes. One particular scene, just as the true horror is shown McQueen makes the stylistic choice to hold the shot for a little longer… and a little longer… and just a little more. This maximises the true horror and effect of the obscene nature of the life during this time period.
Given that the film is adapted from Solomon’s own memoir and is based in the not-too-distant past, its true shock and horror of the human treatment that is the feeling left by the film. McQueen has found an extraordinary balancing act of telling the true story of the obscene actions that took place during the time and a fantastic and utterly transfixing film. 12 Years a Slave will be ranked among a true great.