Visual Artist

12 Years a Slave (2013)


12 Years a Slave (2013)I went into this film with the idea that Gravity (2013) was still the worthy winner of the best picture Oscar this year. That was soon thrown out of the window with 12 Years a Slave (2013) the third Steve McQueen film, which I was at first unsure about, thinking it would be of no interest to me, too brutal for my taste. I thought with all the conversations going on, it would be a crime to not see this unflinching piece of film-making.

Talk of the lingering camera style having disappeared are wrong, instead it has been worked into this more flowing narrative that begins as a series of flashback from one life as a free man for Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is stolen from him as he is kidnapped into a life of slavery, under the control of the white-man, who was once his equal.

It’s hard not to ignore and try to compare this to Django Unchained (2012) which also dealt with slavery, more so as an exploitation. It brought forward the subject into our consciousness. There is no real comparison, we see the struggle and pain of the oppressed black people, but more so the fear which drives the revenge of the film for the hero. 12 Years a Slave is a survival story above all else amongst all the pain and suffering which an educated African-American has to go through.

Beginning his 12 years on the plantation of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) a compassionate slaver owner who can see there is more to Platt (the slave name for Northup), treating him as best he can under the circumstances. Whilst others such who have been split up from their families suffer on. However the first few months of slavery for the educated man don’t come easy, acting illiterate is one thing, not fighting back is another when it comes to one of the masters Tibeats (Paul Dano) who comes to almost enjoy delivering out the pain to the slaves under his control.

Moving onto another plantation under a new stricter owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whose relationship with his slaves is one of owner and property, leaning to a dark pleasure in delivering out acts of cruelties to the slaves that lie in fear. More so for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who is the object of his desires, even with a wife who knows what is going on, having her own view on how to treat the slaves. There is a sense of what could happen in the future concerning the owner slave relationship. Which goes further in Brad Pitt‘s small role of Bass an enlightened Carpenter from Canada who freely speaks his mind which puts Epps very much on edge with these radical ideas from the North. This however appeals to Platt/Northup who is working with the carpenter. He fears opening up, by this point having been a slave for at least 10 years. Bass is the light at the end of the tunnel. Something that we discover was rare in the height of the slave trade era.

For a film of this length, every frame is warranted, every scene of brutality is rightly hard to look at, making you flinch with the sounds of pain that come out of the screen at you. It’s rightly hard to watch, it shouldn’t be any other way. The countries of the western world who have a slave history should watch and be aware. Making a modern audience who maybe unaware loose that ignorance, this account did happen.

McQueen has grown as a director combining his style with this very dark subject which for years has never really been dealt with outside a political and historical context. I was aware of slavery at primary school from images of men lined on the deck of a ship, filling it from one point to the other. It was a frightening thought, something that you cannot really process fully. The cast is all on top form, however big or small their part, such as Pitt who has a handful of scenes. Alongside Fassbender who is fast becoming McQueen’s go to actor. But it’s Ejiofor who delivers a powerful performance who stays strong throughout it all. An independent free man who is broken through the years of slavery still remains hopeful of escape. There’s a sense of dignity in how he carries on through all his character is put through. There are no stereotypes at all, just a rich southern accent, none of the slaves are mocked, instead they are intelligent people, unlike African-Americans were earlier depicted in cinema. There is however a distinction between a black man and a n***** in the first hour which does fade overtime.

That’s a small point to make when you look at the film as a whole. Which in terms of Oscars has a strong chance of at least bagging Best Picture, with all the competition from the other films and performers. There is a strong desire for DiCaprio to pick up a best actor, much over due, it’s a political game. The subject matter may push them away, or will they stand up and acknowledge the films merits individually. On its own it’s a film not to be ignored.

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8 responses

  1. Very strong assessment of the film and I agree wholeheartedly. Powerful film, interesting analysis. :)

    January 15, 2014 at 11:46 am

    • Cheers Cindy.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:22 pm

  2. Good review Tim. I’ve said a lot about this movie in the past, so I’ll just leave it like this: I think it’s slightly overrated. Not much, but still a bit in my mind.

    January 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    • Thanks Dan, I think I get where your coming from. the social awareness of having to see it maybe pushing it. Still you can’t really avoid that with slavery.

      January 16, 2014 at 6:11 pm

  3. Hey, really good review – thanks a lot for linking to mine too – really appreciate it.

    January 16, 2014 at 11:27 am

    • Thanks, Your welcome.

      January 16, 2014 at 6:10 pm

  4. Great review, going to catch this in cinemas soon.

    January 22, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    • Thanks mate, be awesome to read your take on the film.

      January 22, 2014 at 2:08 pm

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