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Harbouring praise from all angles, director Steve McQueen’s powerful portrayal of Solomon Northup’s tragically unjust fall from the comfortable New York middle class into abject slavery deserves every plaudit it has and will undoubtedly receive. The film – nominated for 9 Oscars – tackles a topic which often finds itself overlooked by Hollywood and pushed under their carpet: America’s Achilles heel – slavery. Represented so remarkably by McQueen, Northup’s 1853 memoirs are given a second life, as the film accounts his harrowing tale of torture and survival.
McQueen’s third feature film follows free man Solomon Northup, a carpenter and talented musician, living with his family in upstate New York. Admired by his community, his life is soon thrown upside-down after falling victim to the slave trade. Northup’s life as a family man in Saratoga, New York soon becomes a distant memory as he is kidnapped, transported, brandished with a new name and sold illegally to the plantation farms of Louisiana.
In the Deep South, his old identity Solomon is brutally beaten out of him, and replaced by ‘Platt’ as he learns to adopt his new life in order to stay alive. The 12 years that follow illustrate the difficulties Solomon faces as he seeks a way out of the treachery that he becomes accustomed to. The transformation of character is acted so brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as his stature, speech and personality all evolve into his degraded self. His captivating performance is aided by fellow slave Patsy, played excellently by screen newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who feels the wrath of the psychotic plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) on multiple occasions – to heartbreaking effect. The impressive ensemble is topped off with Benedict Cumberbatch and a cameo role from the film’s producer Brad Pitt, who of course saves the day.
12 Years a Slave is an incredibly powerful, seminal piece of film-making which not only projects beautifully contrasting cinematography – the horrors of mankind alongside stunning landscapes – but importantly, depicts a compelling story at the heart of it. The score, written by Hans Zimmer, encapsulates the mood perfectly, creating the tension and atmosphere to let the film’s pictures shine.
Parallels have of course been made with Tarentino’s spaghetti Western, Django Unchained. Same time, similar subject matter, however this is where the likenesses abruptly end. While both include violence they do so in very differing ways. Tarentino’s exaggerated bloodbath is at times gratuitous and wholly unbelievable. In contrast, 12 Years a Slave utilises the reality of the horrors found beneath the slave trade without needlessly going over the top. Yes, at times it still makes for uncomfortable viewing but the feeling of pain and suffering is felt like none other. The justified use of violence makes the film feel increasingly real and raw, allowing the viewers to feel as if they could be there, living in Solomon’s ordeal too.
In a film that creates its own gold standard, it is fitting that director McQueen is hoping to break down Academy barriers by becoming the first black director to be honoured with an Oscar. The artist turned film-maker also has the opportunity to become the first winner of both the Turner Prize (1999) and best director gongs at March’s 86th Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. However following snubs from the Golden Globes, and – some – Oscar nominations, I fear that the film won’t receive the recognition it truly deserves. An average Oscar voter is Caucasian, male and over 60 – perhaps the film will prove a little too close to the bone for the Academy’s guild.
12 Years a Slave is probably this year’s most important film. Steve McQueen hit the nail on the head when he said “We must confront our collective past in order to move forward into a shared future”, telling us just why this film needed to be made and why it should win big at the Oscars. Both directed and acted wonderfully this film is an exceptional piece of work that does warrant the praise it has so far collected.