IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 134 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
n 1841, Solomon Northup is a free negro living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he makes his living as a skilled carpenter and fiddle player. One day he is lured by two men into a lucrative touring gig with a circus, and, during a night of celebration, is drugged and wakes up to find himself chained to a floor, being prepared to be sold into slavery. Northup is shipped to New Orleans, where he is called “Platt”, the identity of a runaway slave from Georgia. He is beaten to force him to conceal his identity as a free man and keep the name Platt until purchased by plantation owner William Ford….
I suppose it’s little wonder that so few films tackle the subject of black slavery, and after this one I’m not sure there needs to be another. Director Steve McQueen’s previous two films Hunger and Shame left this writer cold, despite their obvious intelligence, but with 12 Years A Slave he wowed me. It’s an extremely powerful and harrowing drama which refuses to sugar coat or sentimentalise its subject [which means it’s perhaps a little cold] except for the odd unnecessary addition [like some sexual tension] to the true story as told by the real Solomon Northup in his book of the same title. The film superbly conveys the standing still of time and, while it drags a little in the second half, the tension is never let go of for a moment. The brutality, especially a lengthy whipping scene which is no way suitable for a 15 certificate [but then this is a true story and historical, so of course it’s treated leniently by the BBFC], really is unpleasant, but that’s exactly how slaves were treated, and actually as much nastiness happens off-screen or is only partly shown than the stuff that you see. The most powerful scene is actually not a violent one. Solomon has been hung at night, and in the morning he just hangs there in excruciating agony, the camera just staying on him as everyone begins to casually go about their daily business and ignore him, the only major sounds being those of nature. It’s a scene of amazing poetry and subtle nastiness, and the kind of thing you just don’t see enough of nowadays.
McQueen’s direction throughout is superb, as is Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography: just take the afore-mentioned whipping scene where the camera slowly moves around the ‘action’ and for a while we are the person being whipped. I’ve always thought Chiwetel Ejiofor would be able to shine if he was given a lead role and so he does, executing every painful emotion flawlessly and often subtly, but he’s almost matched, incredibly, by Lupita Nyong’o, whose first feature film this is, in a truly heartbreaking role of someone who is in many ways the mirror image of Ejiufor’s. Sadly Michael Fassbender laughably overacts his evil character but the main person who lets the side down is Hans Zimmer, whose shoddy score mostly just repeats the same [very familiar] four chords, though that may be the fault of the director, who unaccountably likes this composer so much he had Harry Escott copy Zimmer’s The Thin Red Line score for Shame. Overall though this film really is almost worth the praise it’s been getting and should be seen….if you can take it.