The third feature from acclaimed British director Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave is a brutal, visceral and well-executed, if overdone, portrait of slavery in the stark plantations of antebellum America. Removed of all Hollywood purification (aside from its heavyweight, and often distracting A-list cast), the film depicts its contentious subject matter with all its vehement barbarity, through explicit imagery and endless scenes of torture, yet often feels stiff and perfunctory as a result.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well respected New York citizen, awakens after a night of spirited celebrations to the frightening reality that he’s been kidnapped, stripped of all natural rights and ruthlessly sold into slavery. With no means of proving his innocence, Solomon is involuntarily forced to endure intolerable cruelty at the hands of his masters – most awful of all Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) – in the hope of surviving his inconceivable tragedy and returning to his once prosperous life.
Adapted from Solomon’s own memoir by screenwriter John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave recounts the stark reality of one man’s horrific ordeal as a slave with immeasurably accuracy. McQueen’s hones his skill as one of the most interesting current directors with the aid of renowned cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite composition (a heavy use of closeups captures every inch of pain and suffering) to forge a film that’s forceful in its observations, urgent in its delivery and masterfully crafted from a cinematic standpoint.
It’s certainly a painful watch at times – a scene that shows Solomon tiptoeing on the edge of death is particularly nerve-shredding. Yet, with all the power and provoked reactions that come as a result of witnessing the true ugliness of slavery and humanity’s need for power at the cost of others’ lives play out under McQueen’s intense scrutiny, there’s barely any room to breathe, let alone for Ridley to offer up the kind of nuanced character study that would break up what’s often a barrage of overwhelming evil.
It’s left to the actors, then, to offset the soul that’s lacking elsewhere – and they all come up to scratch. Ejiofor portrayal of Solomon is nothing short of exemplary, while Fassbender is potent as the despicable Epps (though his wife, played superbly by Sarah Paulson, is arguably worse) and Lupita Nyong’o emerges as an actress to watch. 12 Years A Slave, therefore, is an honourable drawing of slavery with merit (the editing and music choices are brilliant), but not quite the exceptional masterpiece others have labelled it.