PLOT; In 19th Century, pre-civil war American a free black man by the name of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery for 12 long years.
REVIEW; To have a poster advertising a movie emblazoned with the quote ‘Not just one of the best movies of the year, but the best movie ever’ is a high order. One destined to be greeted with eye rolls and typical ‘academy pandering’ fodder. The fact it not only deals which such a contentious issue in Americas history but is, in its entirety, a true story could give the impression that this movie, the third by British director and Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, will conform to typical ‘harrowing true story turned uplifting, sentimental hollywood blockbuster’ relatively easily.
How wrong this assumption is.
The introduction of Northup as a well to do family man living in suburban New York with a talent for playing the Violin is nothing new. However, McQueen doesn’t dwell on this. Doesn’t use this introduction as a means to develop a personal sympathy for the character, to make you feel for his own personal plight. Instead it is brief. Enough for you to know minimal facts of this mans life. You see, the point of the film is not necessarily to make you sympathise with the plight of one man. It is to highlight that no matter what his colour, creed, background, sexuality or career choice, the abominable cruelty he faces during his 12 years of slavery is something shared by all African Americans at that time. It is the plight of a race. A generation. Not just one man. This is something very much carried throughout the film. Unlike many films of slavery before it (Spielbergs Amistad or even TV show Roots) it doesn’t conform to typical structure. There are no great speeches on the atrocious nature of slavery. No long weeping scene as Solomon contemplates the children, wife and freedom he left behind. No great escape plan. There are snippet. Brief moments, which are quickly diminished as if not to give you too much hope. You’re in it for the long haul, just as Soloman is. It’s uneasy to watch and even uneasier to have a protagonist who you don’t want to run. Don’t want to fight back because of the fear of the consequences of such actions. Who you will to keep quite, keep his head down and do as he is told. Everyday that goes by where there is no violence, no ridicule, no beatings or rape feels like a hollow victory, so much so that even when the movie reaches it’s climax and Soloman is seen leaving the plantation to return to his family, there’s very little comfort. For there are still so many left behind, to face another day just wishing and hoping for nothing to happen.
And of course, something must be said of the supporting cast. As Solomon makes his way from plantation to plantation we are introduced to a plethora of fellow slaves and owners. Cumberbatch’s Ford has been viewed perhaps, most favourably, even earning him the much coveted titles of ‘nicest slave owner’ (an oxymoron in itself surely?) However, is it ever that cut and dry as merely good and evil? McQueen has been quoted on numerous occasions that his own opinion dictates Ford to be the worst of all Solomons owners. Whilst he may never raises a hand to him or regard him with disgust as so many others do, his spineless actions in regards to the demands of his wife and staff insinuates he is a man of very little true moral standing, and his apparent disregard of Solomons true identity reveals him to match any of the physical brutality of any other slave owner. However, it’s McQueens long standing muse, Michael Fassbender (Epps) that provides the film with it’s most brutal of scenes. An apparent raging alcoholic and merciless torturer of what he claims to be ‘his property’, Epp’s driving force is his unrelenting lust for slave Patsey (Lupita Nyongo- a startlingly, mesmerising movie debut) in the wrong hands his character could easily of swayed into two dimensional territory. A hypocritical bigot whose rage and anger is born purely from an uneducated hatred of people of other ethnicities. But with Fassbenders touch you feel a real sense of torture. A twisted torture that in no way makes him a sympathetic character, but a rounded one all the same. It’s only an ill casted Brad Pitt as a liberal do-gooder, here to save the day in the final act that perhaps slightly besmirches an otherwise perfect movie (we get it producer Brad, slavery is bad)
Overall, this visceral and emotionally pounding movie is a rarity; a powerfully crafted story that never emotionally manipulates but takes you for everything you’re worth. To say you enjoyed it or would watch it again feels incredibly inappropriate but it demands nothing less of you. The fact that McQueen is becoming a name recognised not just amongst his peers but audiences worldwide (and not just with courses of ‘Isn’t he dead?!’) is no small feat, especially in an ever commercially struggling British film industry. It is a masterpiece of cinema, by a man who truly loves the art.