For director Steve McQueen, the emotional anguish and pitfalls of being human are not uncharted territory. The director’s first film, Hunger, based on the 1981 Northern Ireland hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands, is unflinching it its portrayal of human will being pushed beyond its limits. Shame, his follow up film focuses on the life of a sex addict living in modern day New York City. Both films left an impression on me I still can’t quite place. These films are so brutal and harrowing it is a small wonder they are even watchable, but they are. Amazingly so. They represent the work of a master filmmaker. Make no mistake, these films are not Saturday morning popcorn features, these are thought provoking character studies meant to elicit a strong reaction from its audience. They are as uncompromising as they are honest.
With that, we come to McQueen’s third feature film 12 Years a Slave. The real life story of free man Solomon Northup (played flawlessly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) turned slave. Keeping with the director’s tradition, 12 Years is a brutal, honest, and devastating look at slavery in 1830s America.
At the start of the film we meet Solomon as a wealthy and talented fiddler; he has a family, a home and lives a life that could be described as more than comfortable. More importantly, Solomon has his freedom. Through a series of events Solomon has all of that stripped away, and is transported to what could only be described as a living hell for the next 12 years of his life.
There are beatings, whippings, emotional and sexual abuse, explicit and systematical racism, and McQueen refuses to shy away from any of it. Any other director would be heavily tempted to cut a torture scene short, or to pan away while a character is being brutally whipped. But we are left to confront it head on, to be a witness to these events, to get a break only when the characters themselves do. It’s a bold move, and one that may make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat on at least a few occasions. While McQueen’s past films have left me emotionally drained, 12 Years was the first to extract a physical response from my un-comfortableness.
Still, while these horrific scenes were playing out, we are treated to beautifully shot scenes of the landscapes of the south. A stark reminder of the beauty of nature set against the brutality of man. What’s more frustrating is that the key to Solomon’s freedom is relatively simple. Should any authority figure intervene, freedom would be within his grasp. This was a good example of the enormous weight of a systematical form of racism that sat on the shoulders of every African American. It was easy to be kidnapped, taken away from your family, and then sold into slavery. The film informs us that very few of those kidnapped and illegally sold into slaveryever got their freedom back.
Towards the end of the film we are left with an intriguing question. During a conversation with a malicious slave owner (played by Michael Fassbender) and a forward thinking free laborer (Brad Pitt) the question of slavery is ethically challenged, and Pitt’s character asks the slave owner what if the law would change and he would be made a slave? It’s here 12 years expands its messages to the entire audience, that this could happen to anybody. Solomon certainly wasn’t born into slavery, but due to circumstances beyond his control he was put into that situation.
At its heart 12 Years A Slave is a story about a man’s struggle for freedom. Solomon tells us he doesn’t want to just survive, he wants to live. The end result is one of the best films of the year and is sure to be remembered for years to come. It’s a technical achievement that is a wonder to behold, it hits such emotional lows and highs effortlessly and the performances were fantastic. Special attention should be given to Lupita Nyong’o for delivering one of the year’s best performances, if dynamic female characters interest you she makes the film worth checking out. For those interested, 12 Years also passed the Bechdel test. I would love to break down a few key scenes one by one but that would run the risk of spoiling the emotional payoffs when you see it. 12 Years a Slave earns my highest recommendation.
Content Advisory: 12 Years is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.