When is an ‘issue movie’ not an ‘issue movie’? In the case of Steve McQueen’s vital 12 Years a Slave (2013), when it comes from a director with bona fide artistic sensibilities who miraculously managed to carry out his cinematic vision whilst at the same time finding himself – and his film – lavished with praise during one of the most high profile awards seasons in recent years. While McQueen isn’t the first director to tackle the subject of black slavery within its historical context, his supremely accomplished third feature (following the harrowing Hunger and sex addiction drama Shame) is perhaps one of the most complete, with British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor peerless in the lead role.
Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup (whose memoirs McQueen’s film is based), a cultured family man living with his wife and children in New York. Flattered into joining up with a group of performers in Washington, Northup is drugged by his duplicitous hosts before waking in chains. Procured by a rich plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup struggles to come to terms with this new equilibrium, which worsens still when he falls into the hands of heavy-drinking evangelist Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). A cruel master, Epps revels in extinguishing the spirit of his “property”, with vulnerable young slave Pattsey (Lupita Nyong’o) the most abhorrently treated. Unwilling to “fall into despair”, Northup never gives up hopes of freedom.
Having excelled with two incredibly intimate studies of masculinity grappling against suffocating confines, 12 Years a Slave sees McQueen himself rally amidst restraint, scaling the face of the American studio system (albeit the indie-minded Fox Searchlight) with all the baggage and trappings that come with it. His handling of a large, impeccably-cast ensemble has paid dividends, providing a towering Ejiofor with more than ample support on either side of the racial divide. McQueen regular Fassbender is as committed as ever, pouring vitriol over the poor men and woman with the audacity to be born with a different skin colour to his ‘godly’ self. Oscar winner Nyong’o, on the other hand, is a stellar new find, her turn as the stoic Pattsey second only to that of Bafta Best Actor recipient Ejiofor.
A brief, heavily publicised appearance from star producer Brad Pitt (as slavery abolitionist Samuel Bass) has ruffled the feathers of some – particularly his overbearing presence in the Italian posters promoting the film’s theatrical release. And yet his inclusion once again sees McQueen wary of deviating from Northup’s first-hand account, in which Bass plays a crucial role. While focus has lain primary with the merits of its director and cast, two individuals with an equal share in 12 Years a Slave’s projected success are DoP Sean Bobbitt and composer Hans Zimmer. Bobbitt captures the strangely serene, pastoral tone of the Tennessee backdrop against which Northup’s ordeal plays out, complemented for the most part by Zimmer’s occasionally bombastic score.
McQueen hasn’t – with just one film – managed to lay to rest hundreds of years of fear, hatred and malice. What he has achieved with 12 Years a Slave is to again bridge the gap between arthouse and mainstream cinema, painstakingly recreating a pivotal era in African American history authentically and – where necessary – graphically. Whips lash, skin is flayed and hopes are repeatedly doused across the full 134 minutes; but for McQueen at least, there was simply no other way of capturing the true horror of the age. It’ll never be comfortable viewing, but in illustrating the power of cinema to address humanity’s wrongs, the bold, brutal and beautiful 12 Years a Slave goes where few films have dared to tread.