12 Years A Slave

Art & Culture

The film I was looking forward to most at this year’s TIFF was 12 Years A Slave, the new film from Steve McQueen. It was the first film I watched this morning, and it was not as good as I hoped. It was much much better.

I give it a 9, a score reserved for a very small handful of new films. For those poor lost souls who think that Steve McQueen is a movie star who died over 30 years ago, the breaking news is that he’s also probably the best British director working today – based on his three films so far. The first two – Hunger and Shame  – were relatively small scale masterpieces. For his new film, he has pushed the boat out on a much more ambitious project. 

The film is based on the memoirs of one Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in New York state in 1841 who was kidnapped by two unscrupulous men, beaten and sold down river as a slave. His status as an educated free man was a source of danger, and he had to learn to pretend to be illiterate and accept his slave status, though his aim was always to survive, in the belief that he would somehow find his way back to his wife and children.  His first master (Benedict Cumberbatch) was relatively kind, though still a slave owner, but subsequently he was sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) a man whose capacity for irrational cruelty has only been matched (in the cinema) by Ralph Fiennes’s Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List.

Some people have made comparison between McQueen’s film and Tarantino’s Django Unchained, though the only point of similarity I can see is that both films are (or purport to be) about slavery. But where QT’s film is a shallow pantomime bearing no relation to anything apart from the director’s shallow and febrile imagination, 12 Years A Slave is a masterpiece which exposes – possibly for the first time in mainstream cinema – the full extent of the unrelenting brutality and institutional cruelty of treating other humans as animals. It should be, but won’t be, required viewing everywhere,. especially in the USA, which has still not recovered from its legacy (my great grandfather was about the same age as Solomon).

The acting is superb throughout. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrup, and carries the film with his passion, his anger and his commitment to the role. And Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano also excel. But the other stand out performance is by Michael Fassbender as Epps. He has starred in both McQueen’s other films, but here he reveals a side of his acting, so far unseen, as a man demented, obsessed and fully possessed of the belief that the slaves are his to do with as he wishes, both sexually and sadistically. The other important thing to mention is how beautiful the film is. McQueen is first and foremost an artist , and every shot is composed in a way that entrances as much as it shocks. His sense of rhythm and timing is flawless, as is the film.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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