12 Years A Slave is the astonishing true story, adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup (masterfully played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a born free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
The film is utterly relentless in the brutality that it depicts. Two scenes in particular will be forever seared into my cranium. The first has Solomon hung from a tree after an attempted lynching at the hands Paul Dano (on tremendously sadistic form). Brilliantly, director Steve McQueen (of Hunger and Shame fame) does not simply cut away as I, and I’m sure the rest of the audience, were expecting. McQueen lets the shot linger. And linger. And linger. He lets us watch Solomon struggle helplessly in what is without doubt the most uncomfortable scene I have ever watched in a cinema. The image was so powerful, so horrible, I didn’t dare tear my eyes away.
The second is an equally horrid scene, where Michael Fassbender’s evil, psychopathic slave owner Edwin Epps forces Solomon to whip the naked Patsey (played by the extraordinary Lupita Nyong’o), another slave who has been tied to a pole, before joining in himself. In any other film, you might expect the camera to focus on the person using the whip, shielding the audience from the violence. McQueen starts off by showing us this at first, but then brings the camera round to show you Patsey’s flesh being ripped off of her back. It is as astonishing as it is disgusting. I don’t think I will ever forget either of these two scenes, and the unremitting horror they depict.
And this is a good way of describing to you what 12 Years A Slave is like to watch. It is horrible. I’m not saying that it’s a bad film – far from it. 12 Years A Slave justifies its hype as “one of the best films ever made”. It is just an unstoppable force, almost unending in its depiction of the horrors real people had to endure. What makes 12 Years A Slave all the more devastating is that it has been certified by several experts in the history of US slavery, such as Dr Emily West from the University of Reading, as being accurate in it’s depiction of slavery. Never before have I seen a film that horrified me as much as 12 Years A Slave.
When the film ended, silence flooded the cinema, and it didn’t leave for quite some time. It was fantastic to see an audience affected like this, to be so moved, so disgusted. It would be a lie to say that people weren’t crying by the end, exhausted by the experience. Which sounds ridiculous when you think about what Solomon went through. In a film full of shocks, what really amazed me about the ending was that the antagonists don’t get their comeuppance. There is no cathartic element to be found as seen in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and that just doesn’t seem to happen in movies today. 12 Years A Slave is a film that demands to be seen, and you should give in.