Steve McQueen, former Turner Prize-winning artist turned white-hot front-runner for British cinema, makes films about men in prisons. With his searing debut Hunger, detailing the last days of Bobby Sands in Maze Prison, this was approached literally. With his superb second film Shame, he turned inward, portraying a sex addict walled-up inside his own psychological labyrinth. For his third he presents us both with the true story of Solomon Northup; a free black man living with his family in New York state who is tricked and sold into slavery in 1841.
Northup, played here by Chiwetel Eijofor (who has been deserving of a showcase like this for quite some time), is a talented violinist and respected member of his community. His well-to-do living is about to become sharply juxtaposed. Sold by a man named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup is lashed and beaten by men whose concern for him is less than they’d have for livestock. His name removed from him, his freedom removed from him, Northup does his best to save his dignity and bide his time in the diminishing hopes of an opportunity for escape.
His knowledge of the world, his talents, his abilities to read and write become millstones around his neck; their discovery could invite far worse reprisals. And so Northup is compelled into a further prison of his own choosing. Not only is he slave to villainous masters, he must deny his own person; be the brute beast his white owners perceive him as and no more.
After the vile brutality of Freeman’s guardianship, Ford seems kinder, more open to Northup’s capabilities. Cumberbatch colours him as a sort of gentile rogue, inexplicably mixed-up in a godforsaken business for its ease, with any genuine culpability shrugged-off as a necessary evil. He may seem the most sympathetic, but Ford is just as guilty as anyone else here…
Cue Michael Fassbender as Northup’s next owner, Edwin Epps. A man of theatrical gesture who cleaves to the bible even as demons riddle his soul. Northup finds himself amid a very peculiar dynamic as Epps is bewitched by one of his young slaves Patsey (an extraordinary Lupita Nyong’o) to the consternation of his bitter wife (Sarah Paulson, never more fearsome).
Fassbender has held court over both of McQueen’s previous films, and as 12 Years A Slave moves to the time Northup spends under the ownership of Epps, you can feel McQueen’s camera being drawn back to the man, despite itself. Fassbender is terrific as ever, but his very boldness and despicable magnetism threaten to tip the film off course, away from Ejiofor’s stoic depiction of Northup.
There are many notable, even showy performers who step onto the stage here. Along with those already mentioned you can add Paul Dano, fantastic as vile overseer Tibeats. In contrast, Brad Pitt’s appearance at the eleventh hour is horribly, almost fatally misjudged. Holding a producer credit on the film, one sees Pitt’s role as pure ego-fanning. He stands out for all the wrong reasons.
Elsewhere and faring better are the likes of Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy and Garret Dillahunt (always welcome in anything). So recognisable are the faces that they almost feel like stunt casting, their familiarity threatening to push Ejiofor into the shade. Yet, while so many exceptional players grab the eye as they sprint through the picture, it is Ejiofor who is running the marathon.
He has a difficult task, portraying not just a man sold into captivity, but caught within himself. Shuttered in for his own safety, his Northup is simmering, smoldering, quietly electric. In one extraordinary scene we are presented just Ejiofor, his soulful eyes searching, waiting for justice and release. McQueen holds on him for just a little longer than we might expect from another director. It’s one of precious few moments where McQueen’s more formal arthouse leanings are allowed to hold court.
There are others of course. The disappearing embers of burning paper against black are mesmeric for instance, and in one of the film’s most horrifying scenes, McQueen’s camera roams 360 degrees around a whipping, illuminating at its end the sickening physicality of the torture. These and other virtuoso moments pepper 12 Years A Slave but don’t quite cohere with the stylistic rigor that set Hunger and Shame apart from their contemporaries.
But to blame McQueen for tempering himself in favour of a more digestible approach is to miss the point somewhat. Yes, 12 Years A Slave is a more conventional film than he has made before, but one senses a great fury behind the camera. The atrocities depicted here have been too often sanitised by Hollywood. Even recent efforts such as Spielberg’s whitewashed Lincoln or Tarantino’s cartoonish Django Unchained. McQueen has built a film for mass consumption that packs a significant and worthy punch. Dressed up as an Oscar-hungry prestige picture, 12 Years A Slave is a bristling, important film, angry and expressive, designed and marketed to be seen by as many people as possible. McQueen wants you to witness America’s sickening history for what it really was.
As such 12 Years A Slave is a sobering experience, powerful and emotional. McQueen and his actors do their best to keep the right side of histrionic melodrama, and when the film notably plays bigger it is always to serve a purpose. Ejiofor, like Northup, shines despite the constraints placed upon him, and Lupita Nyong’o may prove to be one of the finds of the year. It may not be light entertainment, but 12 Years A Slave is a potent film, one that you would do well to make time for during a busy season for dramatic releases. Shame about Brad Pitt though.