Director Steve McQueen progresses through an increasingly-strong body of work in leaps and bounds. Although this is his most conventional film to date he has is no way compromised himself. 12 Years a Slave proves quite the opposite.
It's 1841. Solomon Northup is a free man - a musician, in Saratoga Springs, New York State. He has a wife and two children. Duped by a pair of strangers, he is lured to Washington DC, subsequently kidnapped and then sold into slavery. He becomes the property of a series of slavers as he is shipped further South. He does all he can to survive the ensuing horrors and to get back to his family, over the eponymous twelve years.
It is a harrowing tale - the stuff of nightmares - and makes for ugly and disgusting viewing. The film is filled with unimaginable behaviour. Any form of resistance to slaving is met with violence. The whip is casually used as any other farm tool. The slaves are not treated like livestock they are livestock. With all civil liberties robbed from them, simple private acts such as disrobing to wash, are watched over. The casual frequency of overseeing such nudity, for ablutions and at slave markets, is particularly vile. A woman is separated from her two children in a quick, simple monetary exchange. While racism is, admittedly, still endemic the extremes in the film are unfathomable. It is almost like a warped, dystopian science-fiction.
It’s a dream cast but doesn’t at any point feel like ‘stunt casting’. Each and every one of the actors - whether noted glitterati such as Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender or talented newcomers such as Lupita Nyong'o - gives a thoroughly committed performance. Even an actor with the star wattage of Brad Pitt (who also produced the film) makes his small role so authentic that it would take a lot of cynicism to find his appearance distracting.
It's muscular film-making from McQueen but not without achingly-beautiful detail: the waves created by a paddle steamer are enchanting, sunsets are seen but only through treetops as if from the slave quarters, corners of the plantation without much of a view. The dialogue is incredible. It drips with authenticity but is never staid or stilted (as so often occurs in period drama). Adapted from Solomon Northup's book screenwriter John Ridley delivers lean, punchy prose.
While it's a tough watch it's fantastically rewarding. As a white, straight, Anglo-Saxon male in the 21st Century it's takes some imagination to consider what it's like to be a victim of prejudice. This is an appropriately vivid and visceral illustration of prejudice and one we really should expose ourselves to. Considering the pain these people went through, simply sitting in a darkened auditorium for a couple of hours is hardly a stretch.The experience of watching reinforced how lucky I am, made me grateful for a painless upbringing and reminded me how very easy my current situation is in the world. There is white guilt involved in the viewing experience. And so there certainly should be. It shines a big, bright light on the systematic abuse that we - the US (and the UK) - should be forever shamed by.