Director: Steve McQueen
It’s been twelve months since Django Unchained, the po-mo western that reshaped US history into a double-barrelled shotgun, loaded it with ignorance, and obtusely blasted the head off any truth about pre-Civil War slavery. That’s at least the re-evaluation of Quentin Tarantino’s movie that comes of watching 12 Years a Slave, a momentous historical drama poised between the personal strife of a free man sold to slavery and the untitled stories of a million others. All have been immortalised by Steve McQueen’s unflinching lens.
Adapted from a memoir written 150 years ago, the film’s subject hits the screen with urgency and relevance. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a well-to-do violinist contented with a life familiar to us; he shops, dresses well, and goes to dinner a respected citizen. Flashes forward to a sugar cane plantation interpose the idyll, where the polite address of “sir” is replaced by “nigger”, and a numbing hypocrisy wafts from the tip of a hat set against the crack of a whip. The N-word meanwhile gnaws long after it leaves an overseer’s lips, yet even this is not so profound an insult as Northup’s new slave name “Platt”; a shackle more degrading than any made of iron.
It’s safe to say we’ll be seeing a lot more of Ejiofor following his big and well-deserved break as Northup. Every inch of his face becomes an expressive tool, where glistening eyes or a trembling lip will say more than any number of spoken lines could. Ejiofor was initially hesitant about taking the role, and it’s obvious that McQueen wanted him for his humble and stoic air – just the leading man to modestly allow glances over his head at the bigger, horrific picture. The balancing act between Northup’s exceptional story and its historical backdrop feels enduringly faithful, even definitive.
The steady pacing of the episodic dozen-year journey provides stage space for an outstanding supporting cast. First are Northup’s masters, each representing different facets of slavery’s evil. Benedict Cumberbatch offers a rare friendly face as Ford the plantation owner, yet crushingly proves to be little more than an ineffectual coward. To “save” him from murder by mewling overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is sold on to the deranged Edwin Epps, played by a bulging-eyed Michael Fassbender. As the infamous “nigger breaker”, Fassbender spits rabid cruelty from a snarling visage of hatred, haunting scenes with his twisted bible recitals. The justification for his sadism? “That’s scripture.”
Real revelations are found on the other end of Epps’ lashings. Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning debut as field slave Patsey is simply taken as reality, a living extension of the authentic production design. Patsey is the girl left behind, consigned not to twelve years, but a lifetime of misery. McQueen may speak the unspeakable through Northup, but Nyong’o reminds us that most slaves had it inconceivably worse.
Individual achievements owe much to those of the technical departments. Hans Zimmer helms the score, but not even this eminent composer’s melodies can muffle the sharply rendered rattling of chains, a creaking noose, or the slaves’ rumbling chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll”. The elegy sounds from somewhere deep within Ejiofor, in a spine-chilling eruption of pure soul.
Producer Brad Pitt’s late messiah-like appearance as a noble Canadian carpenter brings the film’s only off-note; after two hours of torturous realism he arrives on set conspicuously like a Hollywood star on work experience. Then again, Pitt coats McQueen’s bitter pill with a smidge of sugar that an Oscar board would find palatable.
But we’re far away from a gooey finale or a honeyed closing theme tune. The director’s last film was Shame, and despite the leap in subject matter from sex addiction to slavery, the end of 12 Years leaves us with just this.
McQueen is resolute in his scrutiny of the atrocities that modern life was founded upon. He opens his film on a misleading claim, “based on a true story” – misleading because it tells hundreds of thousands more. As for Solomon Northup, his story isn’t told; it is raised through the ceiling and declared. Like the welts on Northup’s back, 12 Years a Slave will leave its lingering marks on the mind, and on the future of cinema.