"I don't want to survive. I want to live."
12 Years A Slave is the unbelievable true story of a free African-American man from New York tricked, smuggled into harsh Louisiana, and illegally sold into slavery, making it the ultimate story of human suffering. African-British filmmaker Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) adapts the real-life drama for the screen and it's an incredible work about humanity and injustice. It never holds back and works as both high art and much more as a culmination of the human cost of slavery and our violent history. Uniquely American, it explores so hauntingly themes of hope, life, spiritually, and survival, all done masterfully.
Based on Soloman Northup's 1953 pre-Civil War memoir, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is remarkably strong and enduring in his portrayal of humanity in every breath. McQueen looks at the perils of intelligence, freedom, and slavery from every angle. Stripped of his identity, Northup cannot trust anyone and step by step, we see how intertwined violence and cruelty are in humanity. It's use of body horror and torture is particularly striking, mixing genre conventions with a historical retelling.
McQueen continues his collaboration with Michael Fassbender. He plays Master Epps, the most evil, despicable yet oddly human of all the plantation owners. His performance is horrifically compelling where it could easily have been a caricature. White characters are portrayed with an interesting range and complexion. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Northup's first owner, a relatively kind and caring preacher who is sympathetic to the plight of slavery yet it's his kindness that almost proves more cruel. Slavery's ingrained status in Southern culture and history reveals so many strange, disturbing trends from at the time as it's oddly contrasted with honour and gentlemanly behaviour when doing business.
This film is an incredibly unsentimental portrait of institutionalized human misery and cruelty while never being too hard to watch. It's so raw and unflinching in its depiction of human suffering. African characters are hardly spared or given any favours with many different portrayals of slavery relative everyone's desire for freedom. McQueen resists any urge to let the camera linger or exploit what's happening on screen as Hans Zimmer's very restrained score underlines the both the beauty and terror of what we're seeing.
Written sublimely by John Ridley (co-writer of Undercover Brother), the procedural script jumps back and forth through time does a superb job of framing Northup's narrative and establishing his torment. It never takes the easy way out in portraying every aspect of the inhumanity of legal slavery. Northup must give up his humanity in order to survive as he balances his own identity with making his own life worse in the circumstances he finds himself in.
Everything on screen in 12 Years A Slave truly represents a touchingly, utterly cinematic piece of art. McQueen deftly portrays hundreds of years of violence, racism, and slavery in two hours of screen time. It's an unflinching film about one man's "unmistakable desire for freedom" as a kind of a nightmare on telling the brutal struggles of American freedom. I find it a little more than embarrassing that such a universal, identifiable film about American slavery was made by and stars Brits.
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