12 Years a Slave

More than just a milestone in filmmaking, 12 Years a slave is every bit a masterpiece as much as it is essential cinema.

There are few films that refuse to leave a viewer’s system hours and even days after they are seen. Some of these films radiate overwhelming joy, while others leave a bitter aftertaste that is hard to get rid of. 12 Years a Slave has the rare distinction of being both a triumphant story on the persistent power of the human spirit while simultaneously dwelling into the darkest recesses of the human soul. Although generally mistaken for the same thing, there is a glaring difference between the human spirit and the soul because only one of these can be tainted with racial prejudice. And that is the soul, the metaphysical constitution of a human being but that which has unlimited potential to harbour raw hate. How this hate transcends beyond cruelty is director Steve McQueen’s masterstroke in this outstanding film.

As a period piece set in 1841, 12 Years a Slave is a true story; a first hand account of slavery as published by Solomon Northup in an 1853 memoir of the same name. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man from a middle class African-American family in Saratoga, New York. His entire life changes for the worse the day he is kidnapped and shipped to plantations in the South. Here, he looses his identity, his freedom, his family, but most of all, his stature as a human being. During the course of these twelve years, Northup encounters inhumane cruelty from the day he is sold as a “fit beast”. He is bought and sold, witnesses the rape and murder of other slaves in captivity and is all but ‘broken’ by his sadistic master and owner Edwin Epps (terrifyingly played by Michael Fassbender).

Don’t be surprised if people walk out during the show. This is not an easy film to watch, let alone digest. The depiction of cruelty is as unbelievable as it is frequently stomach knotting. There are multiple scenes of intense physical abuse that are very unforgiving for the timid viewer. But if you can stomach the violence, there are tear-jerking scenes that are equally emotionally crushing. One particular scene has a mother separated from her children when her family is sold to different slave owners. Incidentally, the slave trader who sells these slaves is played by Paul Giamatti, but the manner in which he sells his slaves has a striking similarity to the scene where he sells human ‘slaves’ to apes, in Planet of The Apes (2001). I’m not sure if there is a hidden message here, but I found this scene rather perplexing. Another disturbing segment is a five minute lynching scene where a slave is left hanging all through the day. This is also where the film treads into art house territory. No surprise there because like his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen’s deft brushstrokes reveal a beautiful picture, but a picture about an ugly subject.

To say that 12 Years a slave is a milestone achievement in filmmaking would only be half truth. It is every bit a masterpiece as much as it is essential cinema. From Sean Bobbitt’s captivating cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s moving original music, to flawless performances from an ensemble of top actors (including Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch in plot twisting key roles), the credit goes to everyone involved in its making. In a remarkable performance for a debut role, Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o plays the most tragic character in the film – Patsy, a slave caught between her master’s nightly visits and her master’s wife’s jealousy over said reason. Even so, nothing can prepare you for one of the toughest scenes in the film and this is towards the end, where Patsy, along with the audience, must endure a gruelling lesson in disobedience.

Last year Daniel Day-Lewis walked away with an Academy Award for his portrayal of President Lincoln, who at the height of power, emancipated slavery. It would be a diabolical irony if the same honour is not bestowed upon Ejiofor for what is simply an outstanding portrayal of a man stripped of his basic right to be treated as a human being. Watch 12 Years a Slave, not just because it has received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, but because the film challenges you to imagine the mental and physical agony of a victim of racial prejudice; because it does this and a lot more and does not expect the viewer to rest easy during any of its 134 minutes of running time and beyond.

Rating: ★★★★★

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.