Steve McQueen’s third feature film sees the British filmmaker returning back to the roots of adapting history to the screen, but much like Hunger, he only ever remains so uneasy yet his perspective can only make clearer what it really felt like to suffer at the hands of slavery in America. It’s one thing to note the very willingness that Steve McQueen has when it comes to bringing these stories to the big screen for as difficult as they may end up being, but as uncompromising his approach may be, his choice not to hold back already feels eye-opening. From watching 12 Years a Slave you’re made to see the very hell that Solomon Northup had been made to live through in a world that only tried to establish him as being of a lesser kind; but McQueen leaves you wondering the very extent to which we truly have moved further as a species. It’s one among many things that solidifies why Steve McQueen is among the best working filmmakers, but even at showing the most difficult atrocities that one can be made to endure there’s an incredible sense of empathy that his approach evokes that makes 12 Years a Slave a powerful experience.
Adapted from the memoir of the same name, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free African American man who was drugged and sold into slavery. In the twelve years that Northup has spent under the most ruthless of slave owners, he also has lost his own identity and is referred to as “Platt” as his own dignity is tested through his own fight for survival. In telling the story of Solomon Northup’s own fight for his survival, what Steve McQueen captures in 12 Years a Slave is the most brutal, unflinching aspects of bigotry and dehumanization that African-Americans had been made to endure and still endure even today. But in this story of one’s own search for a means to survive, Steve McQueen still captures a sense of hope that many filmmakers could not capture through making the search even more overt. Sometimes, being able to witness a first hand experience of this sort would also be a perfect way to inspire hope for change in the future.
In telling Solomon Northup’s own story, Steve McQueen reminds you that this sort of hatred is not exclusive to its own time period. This film never shows itself to be an easy watch, by stripping down to the very core of what it feels like to be seeing things from Solomon Northup’s eyes – from all the humiliation, beatings, and trauma that he was made to endure in his lifetime. As expected from Steve McQueen, his own approach remains uncompromising especially from the long takes lingering upon the very worst of what Solomon Northup was made to endure, yet because he puts you so close to seeing everything from his own eyes. However, even McQueen knows when it would be too much for one to handle, which makes the very restraint of his direction all the more admirable. McQueen doesn’t characterize all these aspects of what Solomon had been made to endure so simply, thus you only feel every bit as trapped as he does. You are trapped to see the world in that same way in which he saw it, one that tried to take away his own humanity from him every which way they could – both thrusting Northup’s perspectives onto the viewers and creating a much more visceral experience on its own.
Because of how important it is to the success of 12 Years a Slave in which we would see everything from the eyes of Solomon Northup, it’s easy enough to say that none of this would have felt so up close without a performance much like that of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s. Ejiofor’s performance is one that only feels shaken by the world around himself, as he brings justice to the experiences of Solomon Northup to the screens. Throughout the film, there’s a resonant feeling of pain present from Ejiofor’s own performance, in which you see Solomon struggling to hang onto his own dignity no matter how much the cruelty of the Epps’s treatment of him can try to take it away from him. But Mr. and Mrs. Epps don’t stick to being simple characterizations of cruelty, thanks to outright terrifying efforts from McQueen’s regular collaborator Michael Fassbender and the always reliable Sarah Paulson.
McQueen’s treatment of Solomon Northup’s story, as much as he dedicates himself to bringing his story to life for audiences everywhere to see, is not one that limits itself only to being about Solomon’s experiences but even to that very extent to which we can see how slavery has only continued to damage American history over the course of time. The other slaves are never seen as background characters but McQueen already makes you feel something for them too. Lupita Nyong’o, in her onscreen debut, exemplifies the most of this power in her performance as Patsey, a slave at the Epps household who catches the affection of Edwin Epps to a humiliating extent. At the hands of the racism that the Epps household celebrates day by day, every second you watch from the film doesn’t ever hold back as you are made to witness only the most humiliating aspects that slavery has put such people through, but from Northup’s eyes you see the helplessness that they have all been made to endure as their own search for survival only becomes more painful.
Although at the end of 12 Years a Slave you would want to think the pain has finally ended for Solomon, Steve McQueen never paints that impression with hope coming at every corner – among many reasons it still manages to stick in your head. But in Solomon Northup’s own fight to survive against the most cruel forms of bigotry you still see those small glimmers of hope even in moments where it may not be there. You’re being reminded that this is still something that happens today, in ways that one may not see. Yet the darkest moments only come to show the humanity of Steve McQueen’s own handling of such material, because of how attached you are to seeing everything at the time the way Solomon Northup did. For all we know, this form of hatred will not only remain one of America’s greatest tragedies but as a tragedy to define humankind, yet McQueen still leaves on that note we can learn to improve ourselves. Like McQueen’s past films, 12 Years a Slave will not present itself as easy viewing but in good conscience it remains vital for the generations to come.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox Searchlight.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Screenplay by John Ridley, from the memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Running Time: 134 minutes