12 Years A Slave
There’s surely a point early on in the development of any movie centring around the subjugation of Blacks throughout history during which the studio executive behind it must start wringing his hands together and counting down the minutes until the inevitable Oscar nomination. In the case of 12 Years A Slave, that point can only have been during the initial pitch meeting.
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (here played by the always superb Chiwetel Ejiofor), Steve McQueen’s drama follows Northup’s turmoil as he is taken from his life as a free American and subsequently sold into slavery. Over the years, Northup endures a harsh life under an aggressive master (Fassbender), the repression of his people and the subhuman conditions in which he is forced to live.
A visually stunning affair, 12 Years is a testament to the directorial prowess of McQueen, whose photogenic aesthetic has never failed to impress, even in the likes of more divisive work such as 2011’s Shame. Predictably enough, the cast uniformly bring their A game here – Fassbender in particular seizing the opportunity to snarl, spit and howl with such venomous rage that it’s hard not to truly despise the character at any given point. A truly irredeemable character, Edwin Epps provides Fassbender the perfect encapsulation of what it is he does so well: to take a performance that would otherwise risk falling into parody, only to round it with a level of skill and detail simply lost on most other actors.
Alas, this is Ejiofor’s show. Hardly a new face on the silver screen, Ejiofor has been a consistently engaging presence for nearly a decade now and has rarely (if ever) disappointed. It’s apparent early on that this is Ejiofor’s Roots, his chance to stand up and be counted in the great cinematic pantheon of slave tales; yet Ejiofor’s performance is one of nuance and integrity. A single tear can speak volumes on Ejiofor’s face and hats off to McQueen for effectively utilising that. It’s the sort of performance the Academy live for, and Ejiofor should rightly expect recognition for it.
Not without fault however, the film does fall victim to its own runtime. Clocking in at just under two and a half hours, the sustained use of torture and physical abuse in lieu of story takes one back to the similarly brutal Passion Of the Christ all those years ago. 12 Years is not a particularly bad film, yet the reliance on exploitative violence to hammer home the point becomes frankly numbing after a while, and while both Ejiofor and Fassbender are both scintillating to watch, it’s a barrier the film struggles to overcome before falling back on a very weak and rushed ending that, frankly, is less than the film deserves.
Catch Van Connor’s reviews in our Movies section and live on Slam Dunk Cinema every Saturday at 12PM on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM or on the podcast via iTunes.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender