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New Release Review - 12 Years a Slave

Adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 autobiography.

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scoot McNairy, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Alfre Woodard




In 1841, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free black man living in New York state where he works as a carpenter. Earning money on the side as a fiddle player, Northup is introduced to two men who offer him a well paid performing job. After a night of drinking with these men, Northup is drugged and awakes imprisoned and transported to New Orleans. His claims of being a free man fall on deaf ears and he is purchased by William Ford (Cumberbatch), a plantation owner impressed by Northup's fiddle playing. Thus begins a dozen years of slavery for Northup.
12 Years a Slave has received more critical acclaim Stateside than almost any other film in recent memory. However, it does have its detractors, mainly African-American critics (Armond White most outspoken among them) who feel this is a story that shouldn't be told by a British film-maker, regardless of his ethnicity. It actually has been made previously by an African-American film-maker in the form of Gordon Parks' 1984 TV movie Solomon Northup's Odyssey, with Avery Brooks in the title role. If you want a by the numbers adaptation of the original text then you're probably better off opting for Parks' version as this isn't what McQueen is interested in, and his film is all the more effective for it.
It may be set in the world of mid-nineteenth century American slavery but its theme resonates today and likely will forever. In McQueen's hands, the setting is really just the text; it could just as well be set 500 years in the future on some alien world. The subtext of the film is something anyone can identify with, examining how we can so often find ourselves bound by the shackles of fear. If you're a wife who can't pluck up the courage to leave her loveless marriage, a schoolboy who daren't tell his teachers about the daily bullying he receives, or a middle-aged office worker who dreams of a better life but fears the loss of security should he quit his job, you'll identify with not just Northup, but his captors (Cumberbatch and Fassbender), for they too are victims, in their case, of cowardice.
The Irish politician Edmund Burke famously said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" but the word "good" could equally be replaced by "intelligent", for so often atrocities occur because intelligent men (or women) are too scared to speak up. Cumberbatch's character is one such example, a highly educated man who knows that slavery is wrong but keeps his silence to maintain his social standing. When Northup tells him of his free status he replies "I can't hear this," as opposed to his white peers who simply refuse to hear it. Cumberbatch's William Ford may be in a far more comfortable situation than the black workers on his plantation but in his own way he's equally enslaved. Northup, conversely, is an intelligent man who doesn't have a problem talking down to idiots like the foreman played by Paul Dano, who he quickly makes an enemy of thanks to his superior intelligence.
Likewise Edwin Epps (Fassbender) the second of Northup's captors. Unlike Ford, Epps is a poorly educated man, something of a buffoon, but the impression given is that he doesn't really believe in slavery either. He finds himself attracted to black women and carries on an affair with one of his female slaves (Nyong'o) while treating the children of slaves as though they were his own. However, he maintains the pretense of superiority by goading Northup, constantly picking fights he knows he could never physically win, chiding Northup at a far enough distance so as not to come to any blows. He may not believe in racial superiority but he lacks the balls to express this opinion for fear of his standing in the white community, and he's equally in fear of his domineering wife (Paulson).
McQueen's previous two films (Hunger, Shame) left this reviewer cold, betraying as they did the film-maker's background in art installations. Here, however, he's matured into a storyteller in a manner similar to Paul Thomas Anderson's career transformation with There Will Be Blood. His previous films had his fingerprints all over them but with 12 Years a Slave McQueen's wearing gloves while directing. That's not to say it's a blandly directed film, far from it. McQueen's film could never be mistaken for a TV movie but it's a subtle form of storytelling that owes more to a classic Hollywood director like John Ford than any modern style merchant. In the hands of many film-makers this would have been a crass affair with cartoon villains but McQueen is more interested in what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil". Compare the use of the N-word here with Tarantino's Django Unchained. Whereas in Tarantino's film you were aware of every utterance of the word, here it goes unnoticed as it's merely a part of the lexicon of the day, a word nobody even thought twice about using at the time. In Django you felt the actors were embarrassed every time they had to speak the word but here it's a completely natural part of their speech.
Ejiofor gives one of the best performances of recent years and it's a rare example of an invisible performance, one that allows the character to act as a cypher. The lack of showiness enables us to get ourselves inside his head to a degree that at times you feel as though you're playing a video game, looking through his eyes, so tangible is his experience. This makes one particular moment towards the film's climax, when Ejiofor looks directly at the camera, incredibly powerful. We're suddenly reminded that for all our empathy, we can never really know the horrors Northup experienced.
9/10


Eric Hillis

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