Cert: 15 Runtime: 134 mins Director: Steve McQueen Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt
I don’t want to survive. I want to live
Steve McQueen has had my attention ever since I watched Hunger back in 2008, this man is an artist and he doesn’t hide the truth. He can portray life with such majesty and also the dark side of humanity. The film is based of Solomon Northup’s book of the same title. I have read extracts of the book during my time at university, it’s very dark but survival and hope shine.Even though Steve McQueen only has three films under his belt he is fast becoming a power house in cinema, 12 Years a Slave has been put as an Oscars front runner. But how good is this film really? Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black musician living in mid-19th century New York. Lured to Washington on the promise of some lucrative work, he’s kidnapped and dispatched in chains to Louisiana. To conceal his identity, he’s renamed Platt Hamilton by slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) and is sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). The relatively cultured Freeman then sells him on to sadistic racist Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Brad Pitt rounds out the exceptional star cast as itinerant Canadian carpenter and abolitionist Samuel Bass, who provides Solomon with a glimmer of hope.
Steve McQueen is a fearless filmmaker, continuing his streak of unfiltered brutality within human depths. He frames his actors’ faces in extreme close-up, the eyes staring into despair, the nostrils fuming in aggression. Naked flesh are shown not because of erotic content, but rather because of desperation and futility. Long takes and wide shots are not uncommon in his films, and here they showcase a plethora of fantastic scenes and performances that work to discomfort the viewer as much as possible. McQueen doesn’t just allow the audience to tackle slavery, he guts the audience and leaves them for the consequences. This is an extremely uncomfortable film to watch. Beautifully shot locations are placeholders for unsettling sequences before and after, contemplated by Hans Zimmer’s poignant and at times horrifying score. Slave is an emotionally exhausting experience due to the fact that McQueen never dares to let up behind the camera. He and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frame each shot beautifully amidst the ugly actions in the scenes. McQueen’s close-ups of Solomon—either singing, crying, or thinking —are immensely powerful visuals of a man who in his current situation has no power. In one heart rendering scene involving Epps forcing Solomon to whip a fellow slave, McQueen films it in one breathtaking continuous shot making the audience see every emotion on each actor’s face uninterrupted.
I have long admired the talent that’s been evident in the works of Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ve known he was capable of what he has accomplished as Solomon Northup and he hits it out of the park. He has the urgency, worry, and drive to get home to his family and executes every emotion flawlessly even when all hope seems to be lost. Where he shines incredibly are the small nuances that he takes as the story slows down, you notice aspects of Solomon that make him even more believable.As Edwin Epps, Solomon’s last owner, Michael Fassbender digs down deep into some evil territory. He is exactly what you’d expect a person who believes this should be a way of life to behave. He’s vile and strikes fear into not only the people he interacts with but with the viewers who watch. As Mrs. Epps, Sarah Paulson is just as wretched. Abusive, conniving, entitled, and I loved every second of her.Lupita Nyong’o is the emotional epicenter of the entire film. The heartache, tears, and anger that will grow inside during the feature will have our beautiful “Patsey” at the core. She is the great find of our film year and will surely go on to more dynamic and passionate projects in the future. Special mentions to Cumberbatch and Pitt in their supporting roles, they really did shine. Even though they had minimal screen times. All around I’m not sure if the old guard of the Academy will give this film the awards it deserves. But truly Steve McQueen has created a film that will stay in the mind for a while.