Sometimes there’s controversy about whether a film “should” be made. To ask “is it wrong to make a film about an immoral practice?” is an overly simple question, because then many films would either never have been released or would have ended up banned. 12 Years A Slave bears its subject in its title, but one should not conflate the idea of “cinema” with “entertainment”. 12 Years A Slave is a powerful, edifying and moving work, but those seeking titillation should look elsewhere.
In 1841, free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Salt) goes on a fiddle-playing trip to Washington, D.C. He wakes up to find himself captured and sold into slavery, first under the relatively kind William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County) and his abusive carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano, Prisoners), and later the excessively brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, The Counselor).
Based on Northup’s substantially true and only recently rediscovered 1853 abolitionist memoir, 12 Years A Slave is brutal and unflinching in its depiction of the thoroughly unglamorous lives of slaves. There is beauty in the film, but only in its scenery: the passing seasons, the wake of waves on the slave boat, the sun setting through the leaves of the trees. The beauty of the South lends the movie texture, and it emphasises the ugliness that was allowed to be perpetrated in this idyll.
Director Steve McQueen (Shame) and much of his cast are of British extraction, but they are not distanced from the events of the movie. Onscreen for majority of the runtime, Ejiofor displays an enormous range as the only constant in a world that grows progressively crueller. The experience is harrowing, and Ejiofor’s Northup is completely believable. Fassbender’s own developing mania is captured in his traditionally thorough fashion, to the point that it’s becoming difficult to remember him ever playing a nice person.
As Patsey, the object of Epp’s attentions, relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is particularly impressive, but she’s not the only standout in the abused slave woman stakes; Adepero Oduye‘s Eliza is only briefly featured on Ford’s farm, but her story is one of the most detailed and distressing in the entire film.
12 Years a Slave isn’t as much of a chore or an endurance test as many other movies of this ilk are known to be. The title and the fact that it was based on a memoir are two easy outs for the audience: there’s going to be suffering along the way, but Northup is never going to die in pain and obscurity. The ending feels either rote or touching depending on your point of view, but the journey is undoubtedly affecting.
Let no one tell you that 12 Years a Slave should have never been made, because it is a valuable document that does more than tell audiences what they already know, resisting the specious claim that it exists to make white people feel guilty. Some movies have to be made, have to be seen, and no other consideration needs to be entered into.
12 Years a Slave released in Australian cinemas on January 30th.
Directed by: Steve McQueen.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o.