12 YEARS A SLAVE – A Tough Film to Watch

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Frankfurt/Main, Germany (Weltexpress). This year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Drama, plus a further 96 wins and 130 nominations in just about every category, Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE looks set to make a noise at the forthcoming Academy Awards.

Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, written in 1853, eight years before the Civil War. A highly educated black freeman and accomplished violinist, living comforatably with his family in Saratoga, NY, he was drugged, abducted and sold into slavery at the age of 33.

Being born free in the North was apparently insufficient to ensure a black person’s safety in those days. After his abduction to Washington D.C, of all places, Northup awakens in a dark cell, chained to the wall. Stripped of his possessions – clothes, money and, most importantly, the papers proving that he is a free man – he is renamed “Platt”, sold off like a farm animal, then freighted to a cotton plantation in the deep South. The life of a slave is then portrayed in all its horror. Although he inititally attempts to retain his sense of identity and personal dignity, we watch these gradually disintegrate as he struggles to survive from day to day, hoping against hope that he will, somehow, someday, find his way back home.

Solomon’s attempts at conveying his true identity and status to his captors produce nothing more than a series of floggings and torture, both mental and physical. Some of these scenes are almost too agonizing to watch and knowing that they are based on real-life events doesn’t make it any easier.

Solomon/Platt first winds up in the hands of a Mr. Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who then sells him on to the more benevolent Baptist preacher, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). His new owner’s lack of brutality, however, is more than compensated by the resentful sadism of his overseer (Paul Dano), who gleefully metes out savage punishment, especially to an educated slave like Platt. The paradox of religious faith going hand in hand with human cruelty is often portrayed by McQueen and co-writer John Ridley, and nowhere more effectively than the scene where Dano sings a lurid song about the fate of runaway slaves, while his master reads the scriptures to the gathered “congregation”.

Although Platt’s skills – he builds an effective raft system for his master’s logging enterprise, for instance, and his talent on the violin is not to be denied – ensure that he is treated somewhat better than his fellows, his life is still unendurable. Sold from one plantation owner to the next, he winds up in the possession of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a psychotic, alcoholic plantation-owner and well-known slave-breaker.

Dangerously crazed, Epps is still less vicious than his wife (Sarah Paulson), who harbors a bitter hatred for his unwilling mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the best cotton-picker in the fields. What could be worse than being a slave? Being a female slave, naturally; having their children torn from them, and being forced to submit to the sexual advances of their masters.

McQueen makes the viewer feel each lash of the whip, each personal outrage, and the utter hopelessness of those enslaved.

Ejiofor’s fear, anger and resignation, in a brilliantly understated performance, give the film added authenticity. Dano and Giamatti are convincingly loathsome and Paulson is icily fierce as Epps’ betrayed wife. Lupita Nyong’o is a heart-breaking Patsey, while Fassbender’s hypnotic, feral portrayal of Epps is one of his finest yet. Exec-producer Brad Pitt plays a small, but important, cameo role as one of the few whites who is not totally monstrous.

The superb score by Hans Zimmer moves from pastoral to electronic dark, interspersed with the black spirituals of Nicholas Britell – almost spine-chilling when heard in context.

Once a year, come awards season, Hollywood seems to release a motion picture revolving around the most shameful chapter in American history. It expunges some guilt, makes for good cinema and lets everybody happily ignore the plight of its black citizens for another 12 months. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is one such, a sweeping epic of a film that is not for the faint of heart. It upset me for days. The capacity of man’s inhumanity to man never ceases to amaze me.

* * *

12 YEARS A SLAVE – (USA, 2013); Running time: 134 minutes; Director: Steve McQueen; Writers: Steve McQueen, John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave”); Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt; Music: Hans Zimmer; Distributors / Release dates: 8. Nov, 2013, Fox Searchlight Pictures (USA) / 16. Jan, 2014, Tobis Film (Germany)

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