Monday, 10 February 2014

12 Years A Slave

Perhaps the greatest victim in the film 12 Years A Slave is young Patsey - one of the only female slaves featured in this extraordinary film. She is portrayed by newcomer Lupita Nyongo'o, who upon receiving a win in the Best Supporting Actress category at the SAG awards articulated something remarkably accurate. She thanked the director. She said: 
"Thank you Steve McQueen. Thank you for taking a flashlight and shining it under the floorboards of this nation and reminding us what it is we stand on." 
Director Steve McQueen upheld an incredible morale in the creation of this masterpiece. He is a proven expert in handling delicate subject matters with precision and care. As an audience member of any of his films you see what he sees and what he believes. That is: if it is a cruelty be done then it is a cruelty to be seen. 

Solomon Northup's biography brought to life shows us how he, in pre Civil War America, is a free African-American man who makes a living as a distinguished performer. In an act of trickery and betrayal he is abducted and sold into slavery. Torn away from his beloved family, he is conditioned to live under cruel subjugation and inhumane circumstance. Twelve years a slave, Solomon awaits a time when "freedom is opportune" to redeem his humanity and reclaim his liberty. 

McQueen brings us an unflinching portrayal of one of the darkest corners of American history. It is an unaffected inspection of buried morality. Often it is, during the film, that we wonder why the slaves are never helped, not even by some of the more reasonable masters. It is here that you learn that it is not just the slaves themselves that are suppressed but those controlling them as well. Here, I praise McQueen for so skilfully managing the complex material - no less masterly than he did in portraying the personal war of sex addiction in the hauntingly graceful film Shame or the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike as detailed in Hunger. 
Critics have had much to comment on McQueen's daring somewhat disengaged vision in 12 Years A Slave. For instance, at one point in the film Solomon struggles to maintain his balance and breathe with a noose tied tight around his neck. In the background you see slave children playing. In an interview with Rolling Stones, McQueen was asked what exactly his purpose was for this rather controversial representation. He stated that his intention was simply to display how common and recurrent such events of torture were. The enduring length of the scene itself, a true trait of a McQueen film, is cinema innovation at its best.    

As well as being harshly realistic it is also often unexpectedly painfully beautiful. It is truly artistic the way that Steve McQueen can carve beauty and wonder out of such an ugly and compromising situation. A perfect example of this is the portrait of the dying embers as Solomon, shadowed in the melancholia of the moment, burns a letter he wrote, the one foreseeable opportunity he had for freedom. In fact I found the cinematography to be particularly notable: from the lingering shots of the unforgiving quality of the cotton fields to those mossy draped trees so iconic to the Louisiana landscape to the swampy green marsh lands. Even the study of the slaves' physical association to the landscape is aesthetically portrayed - the dripping sweat that succumbs to the steaming heat of the Southern state. 

12 Years A Slave also boasts one of the most accomplished ensemble casts than perhaps Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy. It is no surprise then that various honorary organisations including the Academy would have struggled to choose which actors in the film to nominate. Best actress in a supporting role, for one - both Lupita Nyong'o and the exemplary Sarah Paulson would have been hot contenders for the category but alas! Only Nyong'o received a nomination. 
Lupita Nyong'o proved herself to be an incredible facilitator of the most difficult of roles. She aptly showed audiences worldwide how female slaves were often abused in ways that male slaves were not, for she was at the mercy of her master's sexual predation as well as the blatant jealousy of his wife. Her raw uninhibited talent a treasure find by McQueen: from her subtle movements of fear and obedience around their authoritative master Epps to her balanced delivery of lines in moments of emotional declaration to Solomon. 

The male performances of the film are equally enthralling. Michael Fassbenders collaborations with McQueen are signature, the two work in perfect synchronisation. Often I imagine the screenplays and McQueen's direction are sculpted around Fassbender's abilities and strengths. His character's sadistic nature has him normalise cruel treatment in the plantation. His convoluted attachment to the slave Patsey reveals an inner conflict and confusion regarding his sentiment for her and yet his general sordid opinion of slaves and self-righteousness. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a more benevolent master who acts to praise, accommodate and even protect Solomon but he falls victim to his own fears and is proven useless in Solomon's cause. 

Finally, Chiwetel Ejiofor - our star actor. The man breathes life right into the film. I have not seen such a fine delivery of lines in quite some time. We first encounter his true capacity for cinematic speech as he argues with a fellow slave, a woman who shares residence with Solomon and weeps continuously for her lost children. It is here his voice rings out as he delivers the infamous words "I will survive. I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune". To say he empowers the words is not enough. Ejifor's facility for mirroring the human condition is extraordinary - he is not simply a part of the film. He makes the film. He is the heart of it. 

Flawless and significant, it is a strong contender for the finest film of the year. There are many moments of the film that don't just settle in our minds. But scratch at something darker and come up with something brighter. 


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