Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch
Streaming: Netflix, BritBox, Amazon Prime Video (Rent: £2.49; Buy: £4.99), Sky Store (Rent: £3.49; Buy: £7.99)
Rewatching 12 Years a Slave some eight years on from its Oscar sweep is an intriguing experience. A lot has changed since, especially for director Steve McQueen, who was made Sir Steven in the 2020 New Years’ Honours a few months ago. As of 2021, his CV is slim but impressive; he has directed four feature films, all of which have received varying levels of critical acclaim.
However, despite the fact that Widows (2018), Shame (2011), and Hunger (2008) have all been recognised as complex, slow-burning films which acknowledge just how extreme actions affect the humanity of the person committing them, nothing has come close to 12 Years a Slave.
The film is based on the true accounts of Solomon Northup, a free black man and resident of Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, some years before the American Civil War. Northup, a violinist, is conned into a lucrative trip to Washington (where slavery is legal) by two fellow musicians. He is wined, dined, and drugged after a particularly good performance; the next morning, he wakes up in a holding pen, before being shipped to Louisiana and sold as a slave.
The story then chronicles Northup’s life as a slave, including a couple of comparatively reasonable years with the kinder William Ford (Cumberbatch) before he is sold to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a hard, brutal man. The bulk of the film takes place on Epps’ cotton plantation, where we witness no shortage of abuse and cruelty.
It is in this abuse and cruelty that 12 Years a Slave excels. It is a difficult watch, but one you can’t pull yourself away from; it is at the same time captivating and horrifying. In today’s world, with the access we have to information and detailed records concerning what life was like for slaves in the mid-19th century, these things shouldn’t shock us, but they do.
Reminding people about the sheer horror of the slave trade is one thing, however; weaving that narrative into an incredible film is another thing entirely. McQueen is educational and entertaining, but never exploitative. He makes the setting look confusingly beautiful, and throughout the course of the film’s two-hour runtime is completely unafraid to use beautiful shots to show us terrible things.
McQueen shed some light on this in interviews following the film’s release; in a 2014 interview with Newsnight; he said people had asked him how he could shoot something “so horrific but so beautiful”. In response, he said: “I can’t put a filter on life. That’s what life is; life is perverse.”
It’s not just the technical achievements, either; the acting in 12 Years a Slave is also unashamedly powerful. It boasts something of an all-star British-American cast, but of particular note are the performances by Ejiofor, Fassbender, and debutant Nyong’o. All are equally powerful in different ways at different times, and all are undeniably career-defining.
I don’t think I’m able to stress just how difficult I think it is to make a film like this. Any small tonal misstep and McQueen could have been ostracised by critics and audiences alike. If it had been too savage, it could have been viewed as exploitative or commercially unsuitable. Too soft, and he may well have come under fire for not doing justice to the source material or pandering to audiences who didn’t want to be educated.
Somehow, he struck a perfect balance and drew three or four of the greatest performances of the last ten years out of some of the world’s most immensely talented actors. That alone would have made this film worth watching. But brought to bear alongside a haunting true story of a man taken from his family, a man who had twelve years of his life stolen from him, a man who was one of the handful lucky enough to escape? That makes this an outstanding piece of cinema, worthy of all the awards it received, if not more.