UK Release: January 10th 2014
Having been an award winning artist, and after two British (and acclaimed) feature films of ‘The Hunger’ and ‘Shame’, Steve McQueen’s ’12 YEAR A SLAVE’, has just as many production companies behind it as it does noticeable actors. Based on Solomon North’s struggle after been tricked to leave his free land to become a slave, this historical drama is a very physical and emotional brutal account of what happens.
McQueen, a director who’s past days of being an artist allows him to have his own hallmarks to his craft, uses these shots of the slaves back in utter agony. The blood streaming out of the back lashing marks, this is something which in the screening I attended caused shock to some of the older audience members. Having already done this idea of the human bodies of the characters evolving in more ways than one (the nudity in ‘Shame’, the starvation of ‘The Hunger’), it certainly paints a far more visual punch then your usual slavery drama. People have complained in the past that McQueen is more style over content with his films, but there is a harder argument made here to be against these comment, as to me the emotional trauma, and level of acting from the caliber cast on screen is remarkable. The emotive idea of watching a mother see her children get taken away is still something of utter shocking and will leave a permanent imprint when you leave this film. I think what’s beautiful with how it evokes this response from its audience is the fact that the shots themselves are long and very static, making a more emotive feel between the characters in frame and the audiences centre of focus. This again is another one of McQueen’s directional hallmarks employed here, and it works wonderfully well, especially in a scene when Solomon is left to hang from a tree, while fellow slaves have to continue to work in the background. Another hallmark is the idea he tells his story through musical montages’, and the cultural element to it just adds more to the idea that is a real intent of telling Solomon’s story from the filmmakers.
This pass few month’s Hollywood have been releasing films about racism, slavery and such with the usual trailers bringing a certain vibe about it knowing its wanting to show off more to the Academy then the film going audiences. ‘Mandela: The Long Walk of Freedom’ and ‘The Butler’ have certainly done that, but it does ask the point with it being released in the awards window if the idea and themes of racism, are really its main attention, then just trying to get an Oscar. This isn’t the case with ’12 Years A Slave’, while yes it could have been released at a different time then the Oscar release window, there is a real feel that the themes, no matter what the outcome it would have got with its awards prospects, are the most important things here. It is just a shame that the film trailer has been edited as some feel good against slavery Oscar botherer when really it isn’t.
Acting wise, as mensioned, is just delightful. Chiwetel Ejiofor (here finally getting the credit he deserves) brings a very confident performance, and is in practically every scene in the film (one with a run in with the Indians stands as his shining moment). Other noticeable performances come from Michael Fassbender , Sarah Paulson (a under rated actress), Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt and incredibly in her first screen performance Lupita Nyong’o, who at times upstages most of the talent on screen, and can be next seen in the Liam Neeson action vehicle ‘Non-Stop’. It is a shame elements of the story do make appearances of Benedict Cumberbatch (as the good well hearted slave owner – however reporters are saying is untrue, since this happens when a film has Oscar buzz), Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt feel like nothing more than special guest, extended cameos. An issue does come from Pitt himself, who (and I guess minor spoiler warning here) is casted as some hero character, which is fine – but it just how he appears on screen, presenting himself as some moral high ground with what is going on. But I guess after all he is the head of Plan B one of the many backers of the film including that of Film4.
If I was a school teacher I would show GCSE student this film. Just like ‘Roots’ it certainly has a mystification about its presence which will resonate not just with slavery, but also compliment other themes they come across of historic world economics and more. It also is something which considering its source material, does make you think why this isn’t as big as say ‘Anna Frank’ is. The world economics and racism point certainly brings a frightening realization that this is still very much happening today.
On a whole, this is exquisite, prevalent and emotional involving filmmaking to a high standard. While there are shortcomings in its plot, this is something which plays a lot more broadly then you might expect. A worthy Best Picture nomination (and winner) at this year’s Oscars’.