Solomon Northup is a free man living in New York with his wife and young family. Employed as a violinist, he agrees to journey to Washington to play for two weeks with a travelling circus. Instead, on arrival he is kidnapped and sold into slavery…
British director Steve McQueen has a reputation for thought provoking and challenging film making and 12 Years a Slave is unlikely to change that. His usual preoccupations and visual tropes are present, but if the director has previously been accused of visual style of substance then 12 Years a Slave is testament to his capacity to tell a story. Here McQueen combines an emotionally complex narrative and his trademark visual style perfectly.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the former Tuner Prize winner has made a very modern slavery drama. Structurally interesting, it cuts back and forth in time and often moves out of sync. Whilst Hans Zimmer’s score is similar to more contemporary film composers Jonny Greenwood and Trent Reznor with its mix of Electronic sound scapes combining perfectly with the traditional and affecting Slave songs.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 12 Years a Slave is, unlike other Slavery drama’s it is not simple a story of white evil. It’s fully realised, three dimensional characters, exist on a spectrum. Some are malevolent, sadistic and indifferent, others are progressive and righteous, others are benign but entirely implicit in the slave trade. Race, in the film becomes, at times, incidental.
The often confusing and surprising actions and moral perspectives of the films protagonists means the viewer cannot banish the issue of racial inequality to the nineteen hundreds as something evil people did a long time ago. Instead, it forces those same questions about injustice, hatred and human suffering that were once so relevant, back in to focus.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup gives a performance that he may well struggle to match throughout the rest of his career. Heartbreaking and subtle he is the films moral compass, silent and enduring. The better Ejifor is the harder it all becomes to watch. Whilst Michael Fassbender works hard to create a man in slave owner Epps who’s madness and evil are clearly driven by his own personal demons. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation as Patsy, in one of the films most difficult and important roles.