Thursday, 16 January 2014

12 Years A Slave Review

The director of 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen, is an artist. He paints the bleakest possible picture of slavery imaginable, capturing beautiful but haunting images that seemed to have been beamed directly from the past. In 12 Years A Slave he transports you to another time and place making you feel the heat and the pain and forcing you to become a witness to the horror of history. Where Django Unchained tempered its brutality with its Tarantino-ness, the only respite from the misery of 12 Years A Slave is the beauty of its compositions and the fact that for one man there may actually be a way out of this hellish misery.

The slave in question is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who lived in New York with his family until one day in 1841 when he is abducted by 'entertainers' who chain him up and send him down south to live the next 12 years as a slave. Along the way, he is beaten, humiliated, forced to work, to punish other slaves and to keep his past and literacy a secret. Over the 12 years, Northup is passed through three slave owners from the seemingly gentle and (vaguely) caring Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the sadistic psycho Epps (Michael Fassbender).

After watching 12 Years A Slave, it is incredible to think how few films there have been about the subject of slavery in America. 200 years of this shocking practice and fewer than 30 films that really explore slavery exist. 12 Years A Slave, though it may only be one film, goes to serious lengths to show the horror, the humiliation and encapsulate the experience of those who were slaves in the South in the 1800's. It is a true story, based on only one man's memoirs but it says so much that audiences may not ever feel the need to see another film on slavery again.

By having Northup as it's protagonist, 12 Years A Slave may not focus on the ordinary slave's experience but instead it zeroes in on the promise, the pride and the painful humiliation of one early African-American to emphasise the wrongs done to all slaves during American slavery's awful 200 year existence. Northup is stifled in every way by his circumstances; he must not admit to even being able to read and write and he is treated worse than an animal. McQueen never shies away from showing the slaves as broken people. Shots of them staring blankly, running back to their masters and treating each other poorly show just how dehumanizing the impact of slavery is.

12 Years A Slave is a constantly tough watch, just as it should be. Every ray of hope is dashed. Every kindness is stamped on and every punishment and humiliation is dwelt on. Sean Bobbit's cinematography captures the sweaty south beautifully but though many of it's shots look like gorgeous paintings, many more are stark reminders of the brutality at the heart of slavery. When Northup is hung from a tree, it is an ugly moment framed with strangely beautiful long shots; a series of depressing snapshots of history. Add to this, Hans Zimmer's haunting, achingly sad score and the sound of slave voices singing Roll Jordan Roll and 12 Years A Slave becomes a mournful ode to 200 years of misery and shame.

12 Years A Slave brings a terrible historical truth to life. It may only be the story of one man but it feels definitive; every frame is a painting that transports you to another time. Through it's cinematography, production and costume design, but most of all the performances of a completely committed cast, 12 Years A Slave depicts the ugliness of slavery with unforgettable imagery.

Stick around! Please enjoy some more reviews from I Love That Film:

Dallas Buyers Club

American Hustle

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

All is Lost

The Railway Man

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Captain Phillips

Saving Mr. Banks

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