12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt

by Ruth Thomson

Coming relatively hot on the heels of Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Spielberg’s Lincoln, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave jumps headlong into the slave trade – heading south to the cotton plantations of Louisiana to tell the true story of Solomon Northup (Chitawel Ejiofor) who published his memoirs in 1853. You may have guessed from the title that he was a slave for 12 years.

His abduction from his former life as a free, educated and respected family man in New York and his subsequent brutal existence in which he has to pretend for his own safety to be unable to read or write is shocking to watch. The various masters he has to bow to include a relatively benevolent Benedict Cumberbatch, a loathsome (and excellent) Paul Dano and an especially sinister Michael Fassbender. As plantation boss Edwin Epps, Fassbender gives Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django a run for his money in the abhorrent/evil/masochistic stakes. Though not quite as physically menacing, his quirks and complex feelings for  Patsy (the unfortunate young slave who has caught his eye) imply a descent into madness against a tiny flicker of humanity, all which make him a more interesting character. Fassbender’s recent smart ‘I don’t want an Oscar’ announcement will probably mean that he gets just that.

12 Years A Slave does exactly what it says on the tin – and it does it very well. It’s a moving story well told with excellent performances throughout – Brad Pitt makes a brief appearance with some interesting facial hair (beard + no moustache = wrong) and keep an eye out for cameos from Mad Men’s Sal and the diminutive star of last year’s LFF, Quvenzhané Wallis. The brutality is brutal – I had my eyes closed 10 minutes in (though that was slightly pointless as Hans Zimmer’s score adds to the assault) as many familiar images appear – lashed and lacerated flesh, strung up bodies hang from trees in the background whilst white folk go about their business in the foreground. I can’t help but hope that the next slave trade blockbuster (fingers crossed it’ll be a few years away) finds a new way to tell the story: otherwise it feels a little gratuitous watching those same scenes over and over again. But the Academy will love it – and hats off to the original Solomon whose story certainly deserves to be told.

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