12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

(MA) Icon DVD/BD

Winner of Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave is a brilliant, brutal and important film.

Despite being one of the defining periods of American history, antebellum slavery has not been widely explored cinematically, particularly from the point of view of the slave. The significance of 12 Years a Slave comes not only from the fact that it is a vivid portrayal of American slavery from the point of view of the slave, but also that it is the product of a the collaboration between a black British director and an African American screenwriter.

McQueen is a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and does not pull his punches. It should therefore be no surprise that his exploration of 19th century slavery is brutal and unrelenting. McQueen uses a number of long takes, holding the image and forcing us to take it all in. A lot of screen time is given to faces, allowing us to watch emotions unfold and develop within characters.

Part of the appeal of 12 Years a Slave as opposed to other slave narratives for McQueen was that the narrative was the inverse of what we usually get, with our protagonist going from freedom to slavery. Having Northup start the film as a free man made him an effective surrogate for the audience. Slavery is as foreign and horrific to him as it is to us. It does, however, make for a less all-encompassing tale as in the confines of this narrative the injustice is that a free man has been kidnapped into slavery, not simply that any human being might find themself in slavery.

The significance of this project, along with McQueen’s steadily growing reputation, has helped in assembling a tremendous cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, who were both nominated for Oscars, and including Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who was also one of the film’s producers. The show stealer though is Lupita N’yongo, who won Best Supporting Actress for her powerful work.

A harsh but incredibly powerful film, 12 Years a Slave is a fine film and could already be the most important film made on this important subject.

Duncan McLean

 

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