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Throughout all of Steve McQueen’s previous films; Hunger and Shame, he deals with imprisonment and loss of freedom whether literally or metaphorically. It’s as if his two previous films were the overtures before the earth shattering crescendo that is 12 Years A Slave. His latest film is based upon the autobiographical book of the same name by Solomon Northup.
The film starts off with gaiety and joy showing Solomon as a free black man living in upstate New York with his family, shopping in a store owned by a white shopkeeper and being treated as an equal in Pre-Civil War America. His descent into slavery happens after he is tricked by two kidnappers to travel with them on a supposed circus tour of Washington DC for a week, earn money from playing the violin and then be back before his wife returns from her annual two week working stint. Except that it all goes horribly wrong. One of a number of powerful images is that of Solomon being kept imprisoned, before being shipped to the South as a slave, in a disused building in the State Capital so close to freedom and yet so far.
There are times when Solomon is treated with kindness by his first master, master Ford, and then with such brutality by the overseer that he’s hung by the neck whilst the other slaves turn away. We see him struggle to keep his spirit, be quick thinking when he’s double crossed by a white farm hand and pursuing a futile mission to convince Mistress Epps to divert her hate from Patsey to her husband as Patsey is but a slave and is only following orders. The 12 years that he endures as a slave we endure with him until his eventual escape from bondage.
The scenes are beautifully shot and one would not expect any less from the Turner prize winning director Steve McQueen. There are so many outstanding scenes in this film – one of my favourites is when the group of slaves stumble across a group of native Americans and share their roast and watch and listen to them dancing. The first of many paradoxes in the film: both groups are made up of non whites yet the native Americans are free and the blacks are treated as slaves in the South.
Similarly, McQueen does not flinch in showing the brutality and degradation of slavery; slaves being sold naked at auction, the whippings and beatings. The latter scenes are so harrowing and even if I admit to closing my eyes, which in some respects was futile, the wails and sounds that accompanied the whippings were worse than actually watching them This is not a popcorn munching film it’s far too distressing. However, even if we flinch at these scenes we have to remember they are much sanitised; the daily realities of slavery were far worse.
The film is not without its’ weak points – much of the film is given over to Michael Fassbender’s character Master Epps to rage and rage some more thus stifling the character’s evolution as there is nowhere to go and that is a shame. Also not enough time is allowed to examine the moral quagmire that decent men who held slaves faced, we see a little when Master Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, goes to buy slaves at auction and the compassion he feels towards a female slave who is separated from her children.The small role played by the wonderful Alfre Woodard as the black Mistress Shaw should have been expanded – it’s never explained how she rose to that position. The scenes between Mistress Shaw and Patsey are sublime on so many levels – the fact that they give Patsey hope of a better life and something she might aspire to but for the fact that she is Master Epp’s property.
Having said all that 12 Years A Slave is a film about slavery that had to be made to show it’s true horrors. A definite must see and a film that is and should be rewarded for the work of its’ director and actors bravery in making it. It will haunt you for days afterwards and ponder the cost of slavery both past and present on us all.