Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir Twelve Years A Slave is easily one of the greatest novels of the American literary canon about the slavery of African Americans pre-Civil War. What makes Twelve Years A Slave so unusual from other books about and written from this period is the different nature of the figure at the centre of the story: Solomon Northup was a black man born free in New York state before being abducted, sold into slavery and kept in bondage in Louisiana for twelve years. This isn’t any average slave narrative. Widely available to the public, the book has been somewhat forgotten in recent years and isn’t extensively known around the world.
However, this unforgettable film adaptation by British director Steve McQueen puts Solomon back on the map. 12 Years A Slave features long-time actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in the coveted role of Solomon Northup, a successful African-American musician with a family, living a perfect life in New York state. But in a night everything changes as he is drugged and sold into slavery, beginning his 12 year struggle to return home from the chains of Louisiana. Meeting other slaves and observing the lives of the oppressed in the South, Solomon’s struggle to survive the fields is captivating and traumatising.
The best thing about this film is the handling of the source material: the epic autobiography Twelve Years A Slave is a grand and extraordinary story but McQueen doesn’t treat it as so. It’s not over the top and there’s no Spielberg-esque score accompanied by a montage of slaves in fields, but instead 12 Years A Slave is a quiet film without all the cliches. It’s realistic and gritty depiction is suitable for such a dark period of time in American history. McQueen’s direction is flawless, and he understands how to portray the reality of slavery in the period. There’s a number of scenes done in one take and there’s actually very little dialogue by Solomon, instead focusing on the images that are disturbing and moving. Lack of soundtrack is also well-thought out, providing a more realistic and less engineered touch to the film – sometimes the repetitive sounds of whips on bare skin is more powerful than a highly orchestrated score.
The ensemble cast are beyond excellent in all their lead and minor roles. Ejiofor is brilliant as Solomon Northup, playing the character with a sense of authenticity. He’s conned and forced into labour but refuses to give up or give in despite the dehumanisation faced. Michael Fassbender is also a powerhouse as the Southern slave owner who’s cruelty and fury are showcased in the latter of the film. Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti are incredible in their roles, albeit their short appearances. In her first feature film role Lupita Nyong’o is outstanding as younger slave Patsey, expressing emotion through her reactions rather than dialogue and outrightly deserving of all awards. There’s short appearances by Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano who are all sublime and add to the story. Brad Pitt appears closer to the end and is a nice finishing touch to the story, despite the fact he is the ultimate saviour in the end and also producer of the film.
McQueen’s visceral imagery is confronting but necessary to reflect the realities of suffering and torture inflicted on slaves. Via focusing on a singular slave and depicted from that perspective, the audience is angered at the shameful past of the United States as well as shown the harsh treatment of Solomon and Patsey (a short scene where Paulson’s Mary throws a decanter at Patsey is terrorising). What the film achieves is reminding audiences of the dark past that is neglected in Hollywood films and 12 Years A Slave is the best Southern USA tale of slavery since Roots in 1977.
12 Years A Slave is an unforgettable experience and the sentiment leaves you long after leaving the theatre. It’s a stern reminder of the suffering of specified groups of people in first-world nations and isn’t afraid to shine a light on the truthful past of slavery. It’s an incredibly well-made film and McQueen, as proven in previous films Hunger and Shame, isn’t concerned with hiding the actuality from mainstream viewers. By isolating the story of a single slave, we are treated to a film that is affecting, intimate and important.
Originally published on CelebrityOZ, February 1, 2014.
Watch the trailer for 12 Years A Slave below: