STORY: Solomon Northup is kidnapped into savage slavery – can Solomon ever be free again?
REVIEW: Straight away, 12 Years A Slave is not a film for the faint-hearted. It is one of the most haunting, daunting movies made. But despite its unrelenting, tense brutality, you’re unable to tear your eyes away. This is what makes 12 Years A Slave a work of disturbing genius. Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free musician in 1841, kidnapped into the slave trade. Taken to Washington, Solomon is savagely beaten when he screams that he’s free. His howls fly into Washington’s skies, unheard by the White House impassively behind. Solomon is shipped down south where slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Giammati, stunning) sells naked, shivering black slaves, placed like exhibits amidst delicate china tea cups and cream cakes.
Northup, beaten into answering to ‘Platt’, is bought by timber farmer William Ford (Cumberbatch). Platt impresses Ford with his skills but resentful overseer Tibeats (Dano, chilling) has Platt lynched. Shots of Platt strung up, gasping, his toes scrabbling desperately in squelching mud below, shock. Ford rescues Platt but sells him to savage plantation owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Any slave who picks less than 200 pounds of cotton a day is lashed while Patsy (Nyong’o), who picks 500, gets worse, Epps raping, then whipping her as his jealous wife (Paulson) demands. One day, Epps makes Platt whip Patsy too.
Slavery’s crushing Platt when a Canadian carpenter Bass (Pitt) hears his tale. Will Bass help Platt be Solomon Northup again? The film is deeply powerful with brilliant acting. Ejiofor is its evocative heart while Fassbender is frighteningly perfect as soulless Epps, supported by Paulson as his sour, shrewish wife. Nyong’o makes Patsy’s misery come alive. Alongside, the sound design’s superb, capturing the relentless march of the waves powering slave boats, winds moaning through plantation trees.
Deep focus shots showcase how the American South’s gracious life, its mansions and masquerades, its tea parties and gowns, was based on breaking the backs of captured blacks. Alongside, some scenes – Platt making ink from watery beetroot stew, burning a letter as darkness overwhelms – are of tremendously moving simplicity. Bass’s reaction, “Your story is amazing – and in no good way” rings true for the film. This is not a movie to be enjoyed but endured. But there lies its disturbing genius.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah
Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt
Direction: Steve McQueen
Duration: 2 hours 14 minutes