‘Every turn of the page was like a revelation’. This is how Steve McQueen described his experience of reading the story of Solomon Noethop at the European premiere of his third directorial exhibit last week. He had wanted to make a film about slavery for some time, and it was his wife (cultural critic Bianca Stigter) who first introduced to him to the story of Solomon – McQueen is openly disappointed in himself for not having had any previous knowledge of this epic tale of courage, brutality and most importantly truth. When asked during the Q&A why he chose to make this film now, McQueen highlighted that this year is the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery – which is terrifyingly recent. A sure fire awards hit for so many reasons, ’12 Years A Slave’ is an essential and long overdue study of the ‘great American shame’, and one that is so compelling its cultural reach is guaranteed to go well beyond the film industry.
Emphatically a man not to blow his own trumpet, McQueen describes his drive and purpose in the film world as wanting to ‘make films about important things’. Looking back at his three directorial credits, he has taken on some enormous topics, and therefore enormous responsibilities. ‘Hunger’ gave a harrowing account of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who in 1981 starved himself to death in the Maze Prison near Belfast, ‘Shame’ was born out of the fact that no less than 80% of internet traffic is pornography – and now we have ’12 Years A Slave’, an enormous film based on the true story of Solomon Noethop, a New York family man in 1841 who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Despite the 12 year time span the film covers, the sense of immediacy remains constant throughout, with every atrocity being examined and considered from every angle, leaving the audience feeling like they have been on an assault course of slavery. Physical depravation and the absence of choice have featured strongly in all three of McQueen’s films, not least here, as Solomon finds himself unable to use his intelligence, eloquence and decency to negotiate his way out of his slave status.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (who plays Solomon) commented that entering into a project like this was like ‘going down a rabbit hole’, with the female lead Lupita Nyong’o (who beat off over 1000 actresses to land the part of Patsey) adding that she was ‘genuinely surprised how much she didn’t know about slavery’ – and that she hopes this film will be received as a ‘common vocabulary, a common experience to work from and begin the healing’. The way McQueen approaches the master-on-slave violence is notably slanted towards the emotional effect first and foremost. By no means are the physical effects ignored – quite the contrary – but this is a study of human spirit, determination and perseverance before it is one of raw situational pain. ’12 Years A Slave’ is a film that will surely live on – not just in your thoughts past the credits rolling, but into the cultural fabric of how the topic of slavery is approached even in the education system. It’s this level of commitment to the ‘healing’ that Nyong’o very crucially highlighted that will be necessary in order to shift the awareness dial of this dark historical period.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Master Ford, the slave owner who first buys Solomon, and the master who seduces us into believing for a moment that perhaps it’s not all bad, and that perhaps there are suggestions here of tangible relationships between masters and their slaves; however, this whisper of a moment is very quickly ripped away. McQueen favourite Michael Fassbender plays Master Edwin Epps, the ‘slave breaker’ who brings you very quickly back to the stark reality of the sheer abhorrence of the trade. He runs his cotton plantation with an iron fist, and takes a perverse and twisted shine to young slave girl Patsey, much to the disdain of his wife who has no hesitation in trying to smash Patsey’s skull in with a whisky decanter – the ease with which Master Epps and his wife engage in master on slave violence goes a long way to indicate that this kind of behaviour was sadly rife in antebellum America.
’12 Years A Slave’ has been called a ‘game changing event’ by Rolling Stones magazine in the States, but I can’t help feeling like that’s a vast understatement. Invest your all in this film – you will not be disappointed.
5 out of 5.
Breathtakingly raw, artistically spectacular and culturally vital. Watch out Oscars 2014 – the British are coming.
’12 Years A Slave’ is out in the UK on January 24th, 2014.