Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Lupita Nypong’o
For his third film following the searing and confrontational Hunger and Shame, British filmmaker Steve McQueen again uses the body and our relationship to it as one of his central themes in this adaptation of the memoir by Solomon Northrup.
When we meet Northrup, played with incredible expressiveness and dignity by Chiwetel Ejiofor, he is a free black man living in 1840s New York. Tricked by two conmen, he is sold into slavery in the Deep South, where he is subject to horrifying torture and degradation at the hands of a wide range of persecutors, all the while desperately trying to prove his true identity and reunite with his family.
Superficially, McQueen’s film resembles last year’s Django Unchained, at least in terms of its period setting and concern with the slave trade, but anyone expecting the cathartic rush that Tarantino’s film supplies is in for a hell of a shock. 12 Years is a hard watch at the best of times; at others it’s nigh-on unbearable. Which is not to say it is a bad film; on the contrary, it is masterful – an exquisitely constructed indictment of institutionalised cruelty and those who are complicit in it.
And that is what may cause audiences to recoil. Almost no characters – white characters, if we’re being explicit – are let off the hook here and, by extension, neither is the audience. It’s easy enough to point at Michael Fassbender’s zealous drunkard as a villainous figure, but even the most benign white characters are part of an inhumane system. Consider Northrup’s first master, played by geek favourite Benedict Cumberbatch, who is portrayed as a kind and educated man, but he still refuses to listen to Northrup’s pleas that he has been wrongfully enslaved, unable to place himself outside of the economic and social system he inhabits and see it for what it is.
Indeed, what horrifies most about 12 Years is how workaday the depicted atrocities are treated by the characters in the film. The cruelties we see are not outrageous or unspeakable in the world of the film – they are The Way Things Are. No scene chills the blood so much as the one in which Northrup, strung from a tree and close to suffocation, tries to stand on his toes to breathe while the world around him goes about its business.
A few odd notes aside – the endless parade of recognisable faces, including Scoot McNairy, Paul Giamatti and Garret Dillahunt, does become distracting at times, while Brad Pitt’s turn as a bearded, humanitarian carpenter pushes the Christ motif a touch too far – 12 Years A Slave is a demanding, confronting and ultimately rewarding film, and one that is sure to do remarkably well this awards season. Just don’t expect to come out feeling too good about the general state of humanity.
12 Years A Slave screens as part of the Lotterywest Festival Films Season at Somerville from January 13 -19 and Joondalup Pines January 21 – 26. For more details, head to perthfestival.com.au.