12 Years a Slave       
Directed by Steve McQueen       
Starring: Chewitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Comberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a painful reminder of past injustice and boldly exhibits the ugliness and beauty which coexist in an unpopular truth of the human condition: without goodness – and virtue, which makes it felt – we are all victims of the evil inclinations in our nature; we are all slaves.  

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Steve McQueen and Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave is a film like no other. Not for the awards buzz it has generated or its overwhelmingly positive reception but because it is unique. Uplifting political epics like Lincoln (2012) and Amazing Grace (2006) acknowledge the efforts made to abolish slavery in the US and helped give America a discomforting reminder of its awkward, all too recent past. Incredibly, 12 Years a Slave is the first film to confront the ugly truth of human slavery as experienced by someone who lived through it – from freeman to slave and back – able now to describe for a new generation the horror of slavery and (in this case at least) the hope, that managed to survive it.

Originally published with the subtitle: ‘Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana’, the indomitable spirit of Solomon Northup’s book 12 Years a Slave is captured with devastating power in a movie which attempts to fill what director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) calls a “gaping hole” in film history where slavery is concerned.

Like Spielberg’s harrowing account of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993), 12 Years a Slave, and its depiction of slavery, is not exactly a barrel of laughs. It is full on. And it’s not the kind of film you’re likely to be munching popcorn to. It most definitely should be seen, but appreciated rather than enjoyed, and probably just the once. In contrast to Quentin Tarantino’s near comic-book approach to the subject in last year’s Oscar nominated Django Unchained: another cartoonish, bloody and historically irreverent ‘roaring rampage of revenge’ from the Inglorious Basterds director, McQueen’s film takes a sombre and at times necessarily shameless look at the shameful facts of slavery.           

With 2008’s Hunger (about the 1981 Maze Prison Hunger Strike during Northern Ireland’s Troubles) and 2011’s Shame (about sexual addiction) McQueen has earned a reputation for ruthlessly pursuing what for him, as an artist, is truthful within his source material, with notoriously controversial results. Here he confronts us in vigorously intrusive style with an uncomfortable reality still fresh in the recent memory of the white West, in an effort to understand the individual cost and common legacy of human slavery.

The film sets out to upset, to discomfort, to unsettle, to remember and to remind. And it does. But then it really should upset, it should discomfort and it should unsettle because, as the film insists, we must remember. We must be reminded. The story of Solomon Northup is not necessarily one that we particularly want to hear or dwell upon or even, perhaps, have told. The pain in the telling and in the being told is part of that process of remembering. Making a film that acknowledged this pain was, for McQueen, “essential… Solomon Northup’s story was essential”. It needed to be told, and specifically in this way. Keeping this in mind can help contextualise any potentially problematic content.

As you might expect the film has shocking and disturbing scenes of casual brutality, violence (at times seemingly incidental) and rape (though not in graphic detail) with several extended instances of male and female nudity; when the slaves are put on display at market or forced to wash together in the open. In this way the plot painstakingly portrays the dehumanising day-to-day reality of the slave trade – particularly for Solomon who knew life as a free man in the North with his wife and children, only to have it cruelly snatched away – and the monstrous mentality of the slave traders: from kidnappers and market traders to plantation owners.

The camera maintains an intimate presence in the most distressing of scenes, as if bearing witness retrospectively to the scandal they naturally provoke. In one sequence, after defying the wishes of one especially sadistic enforcer (Paul Dano), Solomon (in a committed and Oscar worthy performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is hung from a tree for disobedience. Strung up by the neck and left hanging from a branch, just barely scraping the ground with his toes, for the guts of a day. His fellow slaves dare not intervene as he is slowly strangled, eventually freed hours later. The horror of this and other scenes is compounded by the fact that this behaviour is an apparently common, and commonly accepted, occurrence. McQueen lingers on these moments and wrings out of them (and the audience) every ounce of compassion and disgust. The film goes out to meet us in our discomfort and operates there, allowing very little respite except for a few well composed shots of the peace and beauty of the Louisiana landscape, jarring horribly with the ugliness of Solomon’s situation.  

Referring to the collective experience of sharing in the “mental torture” reportedly endured by the slaves (a slave recently separated from her children is assured by her new mistress “Something to eat and some rest, your children will soon be forgotten”), McQueen says, in an interview with Empire Magazine, “…it’s about the person. It’s about a human being – I think that’s what people connect to. People connect to Solomon. So what happens is, they feel everything he’s feeling. So it becomes more heightened, absolutely. And it should do. Either we’re making a film about slavery or we’re not.”

Key to this discovery, for the audience, is the courage and the compassion Ejiofor brings to Solomon, even in his darkest moments. A particularly striking image, in a film of striking images, sees Solomon forced to burn a letter he had written to his family in the hope of being rescued. As the letter crumples, the screen is left in complete darkness but for the burning ashes. As you’re invited into Solomon’s darkness with him, you really feel his hope disintegrating with the paper. Determined to get to the “dark places” necessary to do Solomon justice, Ejiofor has said “…finding those things physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally – still brought with it a solace of its own kind, which was: I feel this story’s of value.”

Whether or not 12 Years a Slave proves to be of value at this year’s Oscars – up against stiff competition from Alfonso Cuaron’s compelling space thriller Gravity and David O. Russell’s period character study American Hustle – in the end, doesn’t really matter.  This is a film which, appropriately, manages to render award season hype null and void. Solomon’s story is our history and subsequently close to the heart of any meaningful understanding of how and why our society exists as it is today. You get the feeling telling this story was reward enough.

Verdict 12 Years a Slave, like the personal account to which it bears faithful, at times painful, witness, cuts close and cuts deep to the cost of human dignity and underlines why recognising and appreciating that cost is as valuable in 2014 as it was in 1853.

For further information on any of the problematic content described above please see IMDb’s Parent Guide 

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...