If there was ever a film which was truly right to explore the subject of slavery and the institutionalised barbarism of the slave trade, it was this one. From the sheer degree of talent both behind the camera and on screen, every scene tells an independent story. From the moment a human is taken and forced into a life as little more than a living tool to the horror of living on a plantation farm, everything is shown. No punches are pulled and there is not a moment where the actors ever feel as if they are not throwing themselves into their roles.
Based upon the memoirs of the same name the film follows the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African American farmer with a talent with the violin. Brought to Washington under false pretences of putting his skills as a musician to use, he is abducted and enslaved. What follows are twelve years of hell, displaying the true savagery society is capable of.
With the inclusion of names such as Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch listed alongside Ejiofor, it should come as no surprise that the acting remains solid throughout. With each visibly throwing themselves into the role, the film is given a feel of legitimacy even as it shows them in the worst light. Often an issue with films attempting to depict events being based upon a non-fictional tale or account of a historical figure is that the bigger the names become, the harder it is to buy into the tale’s truth. This never manages to be the case here, as the way it is shot, the mannerisms taken on and the attention to detail significantly helps build a wall between what is on-screen and any outside connections.
The camerawork itself is a thing to truly marvel at. While the visuals never fail to hit home just how traumatic life was for slaves in New Orleans, it does not attempt to ignore the beauty of the location. Sharply and greatly contrasting with the subject matter, at many points the camera gives great views of the lands around and captures the bright colour of Northup’s surroundings. A choice which allows the film to give some much needed tonal variety to events. It never veers away from the horrors it is trying to depict and the problems, but at the same time it finds ways to prevent them overwhelming the audience. Even if this is primarily done through visuals, it still proves to be enough to prevent the film becoming one note.
All of this is used to build an atmosphere of hostility and submission within the film’s sets which almost seem surreal in their effectiveness. Depictions of the almost casual acceptance of the unfairness of life there are hard to accept initially, but it is so carefully built and crafted you soon find yourself reality believing the state of life there. The most effective moments of this, such as when Northup is strung up only to have life continue on as usual around him, are some of the film’s most powerful scenes and display McQueen’s talent as a director.
Combined with a tight script which knows exactly how to pace itself, 12 Years A Slave is well deserving of every award it is nominated for. This said, it is hardly without problems, many of which originate with the characters, despite the talent of the actors involved.
Even ignoring Brad Pitt’s role as a deus ex machina on legs, the film has the unfortunate habit of attempting to push its subject matter too far. While Northup’s situation would be horrifying no matter the status of the person involved, the audience is required to believe that he was a very well respected and accepted individual in Saratoga despite the colour of his skin. Someone with very few apparent problems with locals, and no backlash or problems being raised upon his disappearance. Or even mention of how his family could afford to keep living their lives for over a dozen years without him bringing in money. This causes a small break in the reliability of his position as the teller of the tale, which only becomes worse once the film starts to cover a scene he was no part of.
This question of the tales reliability is only increased with seemingly contradictory actions by a number of the slavers in order to present greater brutality on their part. In order to do so, the film seems to ignore their value as a commodity, damaging or killing them when it would not be in their best interest to do so. Even accepting that this was the result of qualities unique largely to them, it presents them as very one-note characters with little to no method to their actions. Hatred simply isn’t enough, and while the actors’ performances are usually enough to make the audience overlook this issue, it causes another weakness in the tale. Turning what was a morally wrong but complex industry into a series of sadistic acts.
Despite these problems however, 12 Years A Slave is truly a phenomenal piece of work. Where the script fails, the actors pull through and in terms of visual direction it has to be one of the best films of the last year. While many scenes make the film disturbing and will make any audience watching it uncomfortable, which was a definite must given the subject matter, it’s nevertheless a remarkable production well worth your time. See it if you get the chance.