This is probably going to be a controversial thing to say, but 12 Years a Slave was – for me – a very good, but not a great film. The film has been getting five star reviews almost everywhere and it’s duly nominated (and been winning) a plethora of awards, but it feels like it lacks something.
Based on a book of the same name, Solomon Northrup (British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) provides his account of how he went from being a free man living in the state of New York to being kidnapped and sold into slavery after being tricked by a couple of fraudsters. The film follows Northrup during the 12 years he is forced to live as a slave until he the wrong is eventually righted and he is released. He lives under a variety of masters from the sympathetic Ford (Beneditch Cumberbatch) to the extremely cruel Epps (Michael Fassbender).
There were shocking scenes of violence – Northrup having to whip his fellow slave Patsy until the skin was falling off her back was one of the worst ones. This was the moment where you could see exactly what being a slave had done to him as a man, how it had changed him and broken him. It was now all about survival. It was harrowing to watch at times but, in this day and age, it’s often not the violence that has the greatest effect with many brutally violent films having been made over the years. The most shocking scene of the film was probably when Northrup woke up in chains after a night out with the two men he thought were musicians and performers. The contrast between his dignified life in Saratoga, New York and the life he leads as a slave is shocking and the early scenes where he tries to come up with ways to escape while remaining hopeful someone will realise the mistake are the most interesting in the film. It’s also interesting note the difference in attitudes towards slavery in the north and the south of the country.
There were brilliant performances from Ejiofor and Fassbender, in particular the latter who had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And his wife was just as bad.
12 Years a Slave seemed familiar and not terribly original despite the fact that Hollywood has made very few slavery films. Maybe this is a problem when a film is hyped to extremes – when the average cinemagoer finally gets to see the film nothing is a surprise, or it seems that way anyway. Really great films challenge us, make us think in different ways or offer something so beautiful and unique. This was a really good film that was to difficult watch but it delivered exactly what I expected of it.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson