Stark, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave is not just a great film but a necessary one. The phrase “long-awaited” has been much used to describe this third feature from British director Steve McQueen, which sees Chiwetel Ejiofor alongside Michael Fassbender in a star-studded cast. It’s a common piece of cinematic hyperbole but it also describes the function this picture serves in confronting a practice that endured in the United States of America for nearly 250 years.
Based on a first-hand account, Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a violin player who lives a happy and relatively affluent life in Saratoga Springs, near New York City. It is 1841 and Northup is a free man apparently accepted as an equal by his white peers. When his wife takes a trip out of town, however, Northup is tempted into earning extra money by performing for a travelling circus. He heads to Washington with new companions only to be drugged, kidnapped and bound in chains just a stone’s throw from the Capitol building.
From there Northup is severed completely from his old life. His name is changed to Platt and this urbane family man is told both to forget his identity and his skills. “Tell no one who you are and tell no one you can read or write,” warns a fellow captive, “unless you want to be a dead nigger”. He is shipped to Louisiana like so much chattel; one shot shows the tarpaulin pulled off a cart in which the slaves are carried like the lid being pulled from a sardine tin.
The rest of the film concerns itself with Platt’s passage through the hands of several owners, each barbaric in their own way to someone they cannot stop to consider as being human. Paul Giamatti’s trader Theophilus Freeman proves the strengths and reflexes of his slaves by jauntily beating them with cudgels. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Master Ford considers himself a man of conscience but presides over plantation in which brutality reigns untrammeled.
Continue reading in The Guardian