Director: Steve McQueen
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free man with a wife and children, living in New York and working as a musician. Tricked into accompanying two men to Washington to perform in a circus, Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. Though his first master (Cumberbatch) is kind to him, Solomon's pride leads him to come to blows with a malicious farmhand (Dano) and he is sold on. The only farm willing to take him is a cotton plantation, run by a sadistic alcoholic (Fassbender) whose affair with a young slave girl (Nyong'o) enrages his wife (Paulson) and leaves tensions high on the farm. Solomon is forced to swallow his pride as he slowly accepts his fate and learns that he must simply stay alive.
However, this is a relatively minor gripe. Though I feel this would have made more of an impact were it based on the collective accounts of several people and collated into a fictionalised version, the film is still a great piece of cinema. Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o deliver magnetic performances here. This is a star-making turn for Ejiofor - his performance carries the whole film, his character adapting from indignance to acceptance, but never losing that glimmer of hope for liberation. Even though we see him forced to commit acts that he would never have done before, Ejiofor humanises him with such dignity that we cannot possibly judge him for his actions.
Nyong'o gives us the other side of the coin meanwhile; submissive, reticent, she doesn't fight her master's advances, understanding what she has to do to survive, even though she is desperate for any release at all. But despite this, we still see a dignified woman beneath it, desperate to maintain her humanity. On the flipside, Fassbender drains his character of any humanity at all. Like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, Fassbender gives us a malicious psychopath, devoid of any compassion or mercy and standing behind him, driving him on even further is the quiet evil of his wife. Sarah Paulson is superb here, often just stood at the side of the action, observing and driving her husband to go further. They're a dysfunctional and fascinating pairing.
12 Years A Slave will win Best Picture at the Oscars in March and with nine nominations under its belt, it could win in a number of categories. A few years ago, The Kings Speech won Best Picture over The Social Network. While both were brilliant films, the latter was a landmark in filmmaking and a perfect snapshot of the time in which it was made, while the former could have been made at any time in the last thirty years. I feel the same way about this film. Gravity is a landmark movie, that will be remembered for years to come as one of the most innovative and important films of the early twenty-first century, while 12 Years A Slave, despite its subject, is just another (albeit very good) historical epic.
Of course this film is horrific, showing us a slice of our past that really isn't that long ago but feels like a whole different world and like we're watching a whole different species. The film will receive many comparisons to Schindler's List in the future, but I just don't think it's as good. If you want to show us American slavery at its worst, don't hold back, whack us with its worst. 12 Years A Slave doesn't go far enough. Constrained as they were by adapting a memoir, they couldn't take it anywhere near as far as perhaps they could have. In comparison, if you ignore that the only other significant movie about slavery, Django Unchained, is inherently a comedy, there are far more moments of sheer horror within it of the capabilities of the slave owners and traders. While 12 Years A Slave gives us an earnest and austere examination of slavery, Django Unchained makes us laugh and then horrifies us. Personally, I think the latter is far more effective.