Fantastically cast, visceral, and demanding of an audience, director Steve McQueen (most recently lauded for 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame) excels at portraying the harrowing story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, only reaching freedom and his family twelve years later.
Adapted from Northup’s memoirs of his time, screenwriter John Ridley balances finely the aspects of each character. Not every one could be said to be a complex mix of kind and hard, or vulnerable and tough, but they are all multi-faceted and almost hypnotic at times in their unpredictability; Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a viciously cruel slave owner who buys Solomon’s freedom. Yet even he has contradictions and complications that promote more reactions in the audience than constant flinching, although there is plenty of that too. There is an unmistakeable resonance within the film of what humanity is capable of. The best and the worst of it, which shocks and surprises us throughout the film; perhaps because we recognize parts of it in ourselves and are uncomfortable with the thought that we share even a little with Benedict Cumberbatch’s kinder, yet still slave-owning, plantation master.
McQueen utilizes a story that is at its essence about cruelty, power, corruption and inhumanity, not only to forcefully educate the audience about the topic of slavery at hand, but also to explore humanity; love, grief, and incredible resilience. It is McQueen’s juxtapositions, his contradictions, that produce some of the best moments in the film, adding depth and complexity to a story that is not clearly defined, but fluid and human.
McQueen breaks from the norm of cutting a scene’s music or sound as it ends, and instead layers sound in his scenes, such as when Paul Dano’s Tibeats’ singing of a song about runaway slaves in one scene spills over into the next, where Solomon and his fellow slaves engage in manual labour for the first time. McQueen seems to refuse to compartmentalize his story, instead showing how moments of life (and moments from the past through stunningly staged flashbacks) slip in to one another naturally, and how aspects of Solomon’s life come back to haunt him, just as scenes and sounds come back to haunt the audience throughout. Those familiar with Shame might recall his circular motifs and the irony they carry, as well as his partnership with Fassbender, and these directorial choices serve him equally well in 12 Years.
12 Years a Slave is both terribly hard and incredibly easy to watch. Difficult, because McQueen, Ridley, and Northup himself do not shy away from the reality of being a slave – emotionally and physically – but in his production of such an ugly story, McQueen finds beauty. His long, silent shots of the Red River, and cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s work in perspectives and choosing often to shoot the most disturbing scenes in an unbroken shot draw the audience in, creating a world where they cannot look away, despite the scenes where they wish it most. The brutality of the story finds its redemption in the humanity of Solomon, the grace with which his story is told, and ultimately, the beauty and strength of humanity itself.