The topic of African slavery is one that Hollywood has never shied away from, but has rarely executed in a wholly satisfactory manner. And to be fair, this is a feat that would be daunting in the eyes of any writer—especially with a work based on real events. How does one properly tell a story set in unarguably the darkest era of America’s history, which continues to bare negative repercussions on many of the country’s people to this very day? Especially with the Political Correctness Brigade waiting round every corner, and every individual just waiting to be offended by misrepresentation or unjust shaming. In their latest film, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley successfully tell the engaging story of a free man unjustly enslaved for over a decade, and his quest to survive and reclaim freedom, without also losing his hope.
The movie begins in media res so as to set the tone for the events of the film before rewinding to the beginning with protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man residing in New York with his wife and children in 1841. Renowned for his talents as a violinist, Northup is hired by two men to perform, not realizing it’s a trap before it’s too late and he is sold into slavery. For twelve years Northup lives in bondage, meeting various characters along the way such as the benevolent slaver William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch); fellow slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o); the sympathetic Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt); and the villainous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
The film boats a talented cast also including Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and Paul Giamatti, and everyone (sans remarkably a somewhat distracting Brad Pitt) plays their roles excellently—standouts being Ejiofor and Fassbender. The two absolutely dominate the screen with brilliant performances.
The movie too boasts an unflinching harshness and cruelty that, in light of the times portrayed, grabs you and refuses to let go. The violence is not sensationalist—it’s natural. The lash of each whip will induce a cringe; my theater was so silent that one could hear a mouse piss on cotton. The pathos created by the film is punctuated by a wholly appropriate score by Hans Zimmer. I personally find the composer a tad overrated and his pieces too familiar. In a way, 12 Years attests to that criticism of his work. However, when the music intensifies it impresses without becoming too bombastic. A reserved and operative outturning for Zimmer.
McQueen’s direction is without a peccadillo. His shots speak volumes about the world revived on screen—one such example being a shot held for a couple minutes where a nearly lynched slave swings back and forth whilst his fellow toilers pace about their business, daring not to interfere with their master’s judgment. More substantial commentary is provided without the tried, simple “racism is bad”—and without a patronizing sentimentality, sugarcoating, or sense of paternalism. This isn’t a feel good movie about a quest for freedom. It’s a commentary on a dark era and the struggle of a man constantly on the verge of submitting to the despair that he’d have every justification to embrace.