There have been very few films I’ve seen that have left me speechless. A film would have to really impress me and shock me in order for me to be left speechless. 12 Years A Slave is one of those film. This is an astonishing piece of filmmaking and a film that everyone needs to see as soon as possible.
The plot concerns Solomon Northup, a born free black man living in Saratoga, New York who’s kidnapped, renamed Platt and sold into slavery with the film chronicling the 12 years that he spent as a slave under masters William Ford, who’s more benevolent, for a slave owner, and Edwin Epps, who’s a complete psychopath. The film shows in incredibly brutal detail both the extent of the cruelty Northup receives and the ease with which the system of slavery was allowed to carry on. Even the more benevolent Ford is cruel because of his complicity in the slave trade and his hiring of John Tibeats. There are very few points of levity in the film and there were many moments where I couldn’t watch it because of how brutal it was. The film also clearly establishes why Northup couldn’t tell anyone that he was a free man, he would be instantly killed if he said he could read and write. There is also the way in which the slave owners justify their actions. Both Ford and Epps use Christianity to justify their actions and the film also shows that economic necessity took priority to human rights at this time, made especially clear with Ford. This is a film which takes all the cruelty of slavery and forces the audience to see all of it, fully putting the audience into the shoes of Solomon.
This part of the film is aided by the performances. Chiwitel Ejiofor is incredible as Solomon. This is a performance where the understated nature of most of it is key. Ejiofor gets across that Solomon desperately wants to escape, and there are a few points where we think Solomon is escaping, but he knows that the only way for him to survive is to keep his head down and work. We see the full despair of the character being forced into this horrifying situation and that puts the audience into the mindset of Northup incredibly well. There’s also an incredible debut performance from Lupita N’yongo as Patsey. Her despair over what she has to do in order to stay alive and the fear she shows over having to do it is incredible. The villains though are what make the film frightening. We see signs of casual cruelty from Paul Giamatti as the slave seller who just doesn’t care about the people he’s selling, he only sees them as property, Benedict Cumberbatch is great as Ford, showing that he does care a bit about his slaves but is still more concerned with their economic value that their value as humans, Paul Dano is also great as Tibeats, bringing across this kind of pathetic look to the character which lets you know that the system of slavery is the only one in which this kind of cruelty can function. Then we get to Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson.. Fassbender is completely psychotic as Epps. The cruelty that he presents to his slaves has no equal throughout the film with whippings and rape being horrifyingly commonplace. There’s also the complete disregard he has for his slaves as anything but property, at one point resting his arm on one simply because they were close. There’s also this sense of sadistic glee that he has being as cruel as he is and this cruelty goes off onto his wife, played by Paulson. Her cruelty comes across in a different way, being more quiet for the most part but giving specific punishment to Patsey, ranging from throwing a glass whiskey container at her to denying her soap. The cruelty that these 2 characters present throughout the film is horrifying and Fassbender and Paulson go all in with their performances. There’s also some great work in small roles for Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard and Michael K Williams. Every single performance in this film is incredible.
The technical side of the film helps add to the overall tone of the film. There are quite a few points in the film in which McQueen stages scenes so as to put the cruelty of slavery in the background whilst life goes on around it. These scenes are some of the hardest to watch as they show the acceptance that everyone had of the cruelty of slavery and how people just ignored it. The staging for the major scenes of cruelty is incredible as well. Due to McQueen’s direction, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography and the sound design, every single brutal detail is made explicitly clear to the audience. There’s one scene in particular late on in the film which puts all these elements to such powerful effect that I could barely watch it, with the sight of the immediate aftermath being incredibly hard to look at. The use of music is also incredible. Aside from Hans Zimmer’s excellent score, there are a few points in the film where music adds to Solomon’s character, the main example being when Solomon starts singing at the funeral of another slave. There was also the way the characters themselves use music, with Solomon’s fiddle playing being used to drown out the sounds of suffering at some points, along with providing a contrast between Solomon’s life before and during his enslavement.
12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece. This is a film that needs to be seen by as many people as possible. Everything about this film is incredible, the acting, the writing, the directing, all of it. No other film I’ve seen has earned this opinion from me yet, not even Aliens, my all time favourite film, but it needs to be said; 12 Years a Slave is a perfect film.
My Rating: 5/5