12 Years A Slave

Cynicism might dictate that slavery is the new hot topic in American film-Djangop Unchained and Lincoln both dealt with the subject in radically different ways last year- and ensure at the very least an Oscar nomination if not a winner. This latest offering by Steve Mc Queen who far from abandoning his art house credentials- Shame and Hunger- has merely deployed them to excellent use is a definite contender in this years round of award ceremonies and unlike the three hour snooze Lincoln, which swept the board last year, deserves every accolade it attains.
This is in no short part down to the excellent performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, a demented Michael Fassbender and an understated but pivotal role for Brad Pitt but most essentially Chiwitel Ejiofor as the films central character Solomon Northup. Seldom off the screen during the films duration Eijofor’s commanding performance is one of extreme depth and compassion which is simply engrossing. Some may argue that the film is racist in its caricature depiction of whites but that is inconsequential as this is a story which needs to be told and to the catalyst at the heart of this story it is the truth which he has to deal with even if his eventual salvation comes courtesy of a white man.
When we first encounter Solomon it is as a free man in New York where he lives a comfortable life with his wife and children and lives a comparatively affluent life due to his remarkable talents as a violin player. This all changes however when he is introduced to two men masquerading as promoters of a travelling show who then get him inebriated to the point of unconsciousness. When he awakes he finds himself shackled and chained and it then becomes clear the promoters were simply kidnappers who specialise in selling blacks to southern whites as slaves.
The helplessness of Solomon’s situation immediately becomes apparent in the harshness of the beating which accompanies his protestations that he is a free man. He learns early on that keeping quiet is perhaps his only chance of survival although after he is sold to a relatively benevolent owner Ford-Cumberbatch- inevitably the finer points of his breeding become apparent and this earns him the resentment of one of Ford’s plantation managers-a crazed with power Paul Dano- who feeling threatened by someone superior in both mental and physical capacities tries to undermine him at every available opportunity. This leads to an inevitably brutal outcome with Solomon, who has now been renamed Platt, finding himself the victim of an attempted lynching and although he is rescued at the last minute he is left hanging for several minutes before he is eventually safe.
To ensure his safety Ford is obliged to sell him to another plantation owner Epps- Fassbender- and his equally malodorous wife where his talents are not quite so appreciated and regular beatings are inevitable, usually on a misguided or precautious whim. A first attempt at escape via a letter is thwarted but the arrival of a sympathiser to the civil rights movement in the form of Bass- Pitt- offers Solomon a chance of getting his story across and seeking rescue from this life which is surely going to end him prematurely.
McQueen does an excellent job with this film. Moving out of the art house has not damaged his credentials or credibility in the slightest and he has brought his unwavering gaze through a camera eye to this film in the way that it disturbed and confronted in his previous works. It is not a film for the faint hearted as some of its scenes are brutally extreme- the one where Solomon is forced into whipping a fellow female slave as the others watch on is particularly harrowing- but such scenes are essential if the true horror of this time are to be laid bare. Although it is obviously an award laden movie this does not detract in any way from its power and any accolades it wins are deserved.

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