This past Thursday October 17th, thanks to Fox Searchlight Pictures, the African Studies Department and CINSSU screened a sneak preview of 12 Years a Slave at Innis Town Hall for students, faculty and members of the public. The event was a success and CINSSU would like to thank everyone involved.
This new film by acclaimed British director Steve McQueen is based on the true story, more specifically a written memoire, of Solomon Northup who gets abducted and forced into slavery for 12 years. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup and is surrounded by a great cast including, but not limited to; Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Michael K. Williams, Brad Pitt, Paul Giammati and Paul Dano. What makes the film so unique and harrowing is the fact that this Black man, born in the state of New York, was born a free man and lived as comfortable a life a non-white could in the mid-1800s and also experienced slavery. This puts him in a unique position as he was born with a certain amount of free will that arguably sustains his humanity but made survival harder during his 12 years. McQueen is no stranger to directing harrowing tales as his last two efforts Hunger and Shame (both starring Michael Fassbender), respectively, showcased the horror of the IRA politician/activist Bobby Sands' hunger strike and the emotionless, hollow, sex-crazed addict’s life. However in this film, McQueen tackles a subject matter that is even more controversial and does so in a gut wrenchingly brutal yet honest way. He doesn’t shy away from the extreme violence inflicted on slaves and several aspects of the film such as the score accentuate the brutality of the condition. He manages to make, arguably, one of the best films that deals with the subject of slavery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a distressingly powerful performance as Northup and manages to convey the raw sorrow, terror and anguish of a man caught in a situation he never expected to find himself in. Lupita Nyong’o on the other hand plays Patsy, a slave that Solomon meets at the cruel Epps plantation, someone who was born and raised in the slave system and has known no other life. Her performance is as powerful as Ejiofor’s and her cries of anguish during certain difficult scenes will certainly affect you. Michael Fassbender also delivers his usual excellent performance playing the disgustingly unhinged slaver who enjoys “breaking” slaves. The score by Hans Zimmer contains recognizable elements such as heavy percussion but, for the most part, it is unique and more importantly powerful. Finally Sean Bobbitt, who has been the director of photography for all 3 of McQueen’s films, once again does a phenomenal job by creating a crisp, filmic look.
The film never veers into “safe” territory and, though horrifying, is necessarily unflinching in its portrayal of slavery. There are no real upbeat moments of hope or happiness and why would there be? It is an excellent narrative film that also happens to be one of the best realizations of the Pre-civil war United States. The brutality is nonstop and the emotional toll it takes on the protagonist will be distressing to watch but Steve McQueen has managed to make one of the best films not just about slavery but of the year.
- Raphael Deutsch