First film review of 2014 and it’s a good one! The film that is, not necessarily my review, I ain’t no critic. We are well and truly into Oscar season and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is right at the forefront with nominations in 9 categories. On Sunday night, the Producers Guild Awards caused a bit of a stir when it declared 12 Years a Slave tied with Gravity for their Best Film Award, the first tie in PGA history. The PGAs, along with the Screen Actors Guild Awards are renowned for predicting Oscar night success, so what could this mean for 12 Years a Slave? Could it find itself sharing the glory?
12 Years a Slave is based upon the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York State who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. As Director, Steve McQueen lends his unflinching cinematic style to this brutal and tragic account. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) fights to maintain his dignity as well as his life when faced with power-mad foremen and psychotic plantation owners. Ejiofor’s nuanced performance perfectly encapsulates Solomon’s struggles. In a stand out scene, Solomon stands with his fellow slaves at the freshly dug grave of a man who dropped down dead in the middle of the cotton fields. Initially resisting the songs sung by his comrades, we see as Solomon’s anger drains to sorrow, his hope fades to fear and his identity as a free man disappears into acceptance of his new, powerless situation.
There has been much said about the violence in the film but it is never gratuitous and is in fact unavoidable in a film about slavery. For McQueen to gloss over this would be an injustice to the victims of slavery, and if 12 Years a Slave tell us anything, it is that there has been enough injustice already. Instead, it lingers on the violence and pain, exposing it, challenging the viewer to turn away. We see Solomon hung from a tree, his punishment for defending himself against an attack from an overseer. His feet barely touching the slippery mud below, Solomon hangs there for hours in the blistering heat gasping for breath. In this extended, unblinking scene, the camera gaze is as passive as the passer-by’s going about their business.
Lupita Nyong’o also delivers a standout performance as Patsey, a young woman who suffers greatly at the hands of the cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (Micheal Fassbender). The subject of Epps’ lust which frequently turns into unimaginable violence, Patsey is in a desperate situation. As Solomon has realised, staying under the radar is crucial to survival and this is simply not an option for Patsey. Nyong’o masterfully delivers a performance which perfectly shows Patsey’s desperation, fear and defiance.
12 Years a Slave is an extraordinary film. It is undeniably an important subject matter and in the hands of McQueen and Ejiofor we have what will surely become part of the canon of must-see films about American history for many years to come. Although the violence is hard to watch, it demands to be seen and recognised. This is how we can learn from even shameful parts of our history. In my mind it is well deserving of the accolade of Best Film at this year’s Oscars, as well as Best Director for McQueen and acting awards for Ejiofor and Nyong’o. I’ll be watching on the 2nd of March with bated breath.