12 Years a Slave review by Alyse Garner - Cinema Paradiso
An utterly unflinching and unashamed look at one of the biggest failures of men against their own kind, 12 Years a Slave is one of those films that leave a mark on your long after you leave the theatre; a masterpiece with more than just a movie-message, but rather a memory that reaches deep into social and personal consciousness.
Telling the true story of a black man born free in New York in the early 19th Century Steve McQueen’s newest film follows the shocking and tragic events of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a proud and hard working family man who, following an offer of a week’s worth of well paid work in Washington leaves his home to chase success few African Americans could hope for at the time.
The night after a drunken celebration however Northup awakens to find himself in an unfamiliar and dark place, what follows is one of the most nightmarish scenes I have yet witnessed, as he attempts to rise only to find heavy chains trailing from his limbs and catching the small amount of light in the room, causing them to glint like knives.
Using a fairly non-linear narrative pattern McQueen steps back and forth between the present – and the still rumbling repercussions of Northup’s enslavement – and the darker past; yet his controlled directorial hand and the exceptional performances keep audiences engaged from start to finish. With each minor kindness offered by Solomon’s slavers the audience is offered a consequence, a painful stab in the back often incurred years later, whilst McQueen and his editor Joe Walker deftly manipulate time and space to ensure each of these blows finds the most painful point at which to strike.
Moving further and further South through America Solomon, now facing the ultimate humiliation renamed Platt by his new masters, experiences the spectrum of plantation owners – from a God fearing man (perfectly played by Britain’s current “it actor” Benedict Cumberbatch) who attempts to aid his newest acquisition by providing him with a fiddle to entertain himself to a violent and hypocritical master who both beats and sleeps with his slaves at regular intervals.
Although I have given 12 Years a Slave the highest rating available to me in my capacity as a reviewer I would certainly not say that I enjoyed watching the film, the film is challenge to watch (not just because of the deplorable violence openly displayed on screen) and at more than two hours it isn’t easy to sit all the way through. Yet it’s raw emotional depiction of humanity, both the good and the utterly evil, and incredible performances from the well selected cast I was certainly glad, almost grateful in fact, that I was able to watch the whole thing.