Movie night—12 Years A Slave
1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and children. A talented fiddler, Northup finds himself wined and dined by a pair of charming magicians with promises of performance work, only to awake to find himself in chains. Thus begins his many years of brutal captivity...
Nominated for 9 Oscars — including Best Picture, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay — 12 Years A Slave is masterful in every sense. But make no mistake, this isn’t an easy watch.
Absent is the revenge fantasy of last year’s Django Unchained, these slaves cannot run away or overcome their masters no matter how much we wish them to.
Director Steve McQueen renders this troubling historical period perfectly, painting a slave’s life as it was: A life without dignity, volition or security. This is seen when a fellow slave tells Solomon in an especially emotionally wrought scene, “I ain’t got no comfort in this life.”
By using long, lingering shots full of silence, McQueen allows us to ruminate in the sheer loneliness of this captive life and the tragic sense of freedom’s loss. In one such scene, a character looks straight down the lens of the camera, as if to ask accountability of the audience.
In his twelve years of captivation, Solomon passes through the hands of various owners. Benedict Cumberbatch’s preacher shows Solomon the greatest kindness, and Northup experiences discomfort in harbouring sympathetic feelings for the man who enslaves him. He wishes to remain free in his heart at least. Yet it is Fassbender’s brute of a slaver who is the true monster here, hypnotic and charismatic with his own twisted sense of morality, he hijacks every scene in which he appears.
The cruelty displayed here is all the more shocking here due to its casualness. “A man does want he wants with his property,” replies Fassbender’s slaver to accusations of being a sinner.
Chillingly, religion appears central in this world, by turns providing justification for the acts of owners and comfort for the oppressed: a slave morality upholding a slave culture. The parallels with the modern world are hard to ignore.
This is a captivating turn by Ejiofor as a man who learns to survive without surrendering his deepest reserve of hope. Ejiofor had already proved himself an excellent actor but has finally shown his mettle as a leading man: Watch this space.
12 Years A Slave is a powerful and harrowing tale of hope, the difference between survival and life, and it shouldn’t be missed.