Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in America in the 1700s, is kidnapped and sold into slavery where he remains for 12 years. During his time he is tormented and tortured by slave owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) who also has an unhealthy obsession with Solomon’s fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
However, with 12 Years a Slave McQueen tackles a much broader subject, that of slavery, and looks at it from a more expansive viewpoint. It’s still a character examination, and a deeply personal one at that, but this time around we’re shown a wider world and some of its more horrendous aspects.
And much of it truly is horrendous. McQueen takes an unflinching look at Northop’s story and has no qualms in presenting us with a piece of cinema that is genuinely uncomfortable and in many ways repulsive. On more than one occasion we’re shown the atrocities that Northop and his fellow slaves had to endure and we’re not spared any of the details.
McQueen has become known for his long takes and he uses them here to devastating effect. One scene in which we see Northup being hung whilst life blithely goes on around him lingers for what seems like an eternity. Similarly, when we see Patsey being sadistically whipped by Epps, every inch of your being screams for it to stop, but McQueen forces us to watch every last crippling lash. This does make for an incredibly difficult watch but is all the more powerful for it.
The performances are also hugely responsible in delivering the film’s message. Chiwetel Ejiofor is heartbreakingly genuine as Solomon as he wrestles with coming to terms with the fact he’s now a slave and may never see his family again. Another long take showing Solomon’s conflict in joining in singing ‘Roll Jordan, Roll’ with the other slaves is simply masterful. Michael Fassbender also gives yet another fine performance in his third collaboration with McQueen as the hateful slave owner Epps. In a similar way to Northup, Epps is conflicted, particularly when it comes to his feeling for Patsey and Fassbender is fantastic at showing this underlying vulnerability. Lupita Nyong’o, in her first film role, is a revelation as Patsey and seeing her subject to such abhorrent abuse is just crushing.
There are faults with the film, though, and blame must fall at the feet of McQueen and writer John Ridley. Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery very early on in the film which doesn’t really allow us to get a sense of his family life. His wife and children are afforded very little screentime and so we don’t really get much of a sense of Solomon as a family man and more importantly a free man. Also, there’s very little to indicate the passage of time throughout the film. Solomon was a slave for 12 years, but in the film it could just as easily have been 12 days. This doesn’t really help us get a sense of how long he was in slavery for and consequently lessens the impact when he finally regains his freedom.
It’s difficult to say 12 Years a Slave is a film one can enjoy. There’s plenty to admire and respect but it’s hard to glean much enjoyment from it. However, it’s an undeniably powerful piece of cinema and further proof that Steve McQueen is one of the most evocative directors working today.
- Outstanding performances from Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o
- Beautifully shot
- Immensely powerful and heartwrenching
- Not enough time spent with Solomon and his family in the outset
- Little to indicate the passage of time, lessening the impact of just how long Solomon was away.