12 Years A Slave is the unsettling true story of Solomon Northup as he’s swiped from his life as a family man in 19th century New York, and shoved into the shackles of slavery in the Deep South.
Acclaimed British Director Steve McQueen still has a fetish for Michael Fassbender (Steve directed Fassbender in Shame and Hunger). Once again their partnership is a dynamic partnership exploring a deep and disturbing subject, only this time they’ve roped in south east Londoner Chiwetel Ejiofor (Salt, Children Of Men) into their bumpy bromance.
..first-hand story that holds no bars against presenting the kind of violence that makes your eyes clench shut and your heart crack…
MQueen evokes the dark soul of Fassbender to create a truly loathsome character – slave owner Edwin Epps. His performance is outstanding – not an easy task when up against competition from a cast that includes Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano. By the time Brad Pitt (who also produced the film) makes an appearance you’re almost weary of the who’s who of Hollywood game and when Epps appears looking like Jack Sparrow, you half expect it to be Johnny Depp himself.
The stark, stony action makes for an unnerving ride. Slaves are shoved into the back of horse carts like human Tetris, while the masters breeze along their balconies leering down at the ‘help’.
Horrific? Grotesquely so. Thrilling? Not as much. The entertainment, if you can call it that, is in the uncomfortable drama and red raw performances. However the narrative has an unsteady momentum sometimes leaving you shuffling in your seat rather than sitting on the edge of it.
There’s no lecture, there’s no message and no pushes on white privilege or pulls on black empathy. What we have here is a very harrowing, first-hand story that holds no bars against presenting the kind of violence that makes your eyes clench shut and your heart crack.
…would it have been made had Tarantino not recreated a stage for films on slavery? With Steve McQueen balls? Yes…
The comparisons with the obvious are getting tiresome. Yes Django unchained was also about the dark, dark days of slavery, but it also had a dancing horse and Jamie Foxx dressed like a pimp. It’s like comparing Rust And Bone with Free Willy. The other question is: would this film have been made had Tarantino not recreated a stage for films on slavery? With Steve McQueen balls? Yes. He’s a trailblazer, not an opportunist.
Proving good things really do come in threes; Steve McQueen third film is already flirting with Oscar success suggesting a healthy box office return. Here’s hoping those profits mean we can unshackle the themes of slavery from the history books and into the cinema. Dancing horse or no dancing horse.
12 Years A Slave is on UK release 24th January 2014.