12 Years a Slave (2013)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave

As 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen has pointed out, there aren't very many films made about slavery. Of course, it's not a terribly nice thing to make a film about, but then neither is the Holocaust, or Vietnam, or rape or child abduction, but there are films aplenty that cover these topics. And, like genocide or sexual abuse, the subject of slavery is very black and white (that's not meant to be a pun, incidentally). Okay, so while many slave owners were brutal and callous, others were more well-intentioned, but there's no getting round the fact that one human being owning another is a Very Bad Thing, and the thought that it was once legally sanctioned is abhorrent in the extreme. End of conversation.

The only other recent release to tackle the topic of slavery was Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. But while this high octane action adventure highlights the grotesque nature of slavery through scenery-chewing performances and an explosively delivered, highly satisfying revenge, McQueen's film dwells on the day to day drudging reality of an existence in shackles, bound to the will of a 'master', bought and sold and worked into the ground, abused and beaten and treated far worse than a dog or a horse or a beast of the field; denied all the human rights we taken for granted, seen as less than human, expendable.

Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ojiofor) is a prosperous freeman who enjoys a comfortable middle class existence in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and two young children. But that's all over when he is drugged and abducted by two con men and sold into slavery in the South. While I wouldn't go so far as New York critic Armond White and label the movie 'torture porn', the scene in which our hero awakes to find himself chained in an empty cell is certainly reminiscent of countless horror movies I've seen – except the ordeal that lies in store for Solomon will last 12 years... and actually happened.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

At first, Solomon is incredulous, aghast: surely this is all some terrible mistake? But, his initial defiance soon beaten out of him, it isn't long before he's abandoned his decision to 'live' and settled for 'survive'. Unlikely as it sounds, however, his situation could be worse. His new master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a relatively reasonable man (as far as anyone who thinks it acceptable to buy a person in a marketplace can be labelled reasonable), prepared to listen to the ideas of a man who's clearly far more educated and thoughtful than your average slave (as with Django Unchained, it's made clear that our hero here is 'exceptional'). But when Solomon crosses unpleasant overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano), he is passed on to capricious, irascible, cruel tempered Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a slave owner who makes Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie look level-headed and benevolent, delighting in making the lives of his slaves a misery for his own entertainment.

Brad Pitt as Bass in 12 Years a Slave

Powerful, harrowing and thought-provoking, there's no denying 12 Years a Slave is a very good film. But for me, it wasn't the perfect, game-changing movie it's been billed as. For starters, at 134 minutes, it's too danged long, and drags a bit in the second half. Epps is a horrible master, we get it, and we really don't need to see quite so many scenes displaying his twisted nastiness. There's also a certain Cronenberg-esque coldness about the film that keeps the viewer at arms' length: in order to survive, Solomon must shut away his emotions, which sometimes makes him a slightly inaccessible focus for our sympathy. And then we have Brad Pitt, the golden A-lister parachuted in at the end to save the day, World War Z style.

Like Schindler's List, 12 Years a Slave is a film I felt I had to see rather than really wanted to see: it's an important story and a compelling, grim evocation of a period of history that humanity as a whole should be ashamed of. With no Django-style exacting revenge at the end to make us all feel better.

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