12 years a slave review: A masterful tribute to human spirit

The film has scored nine Oscar nominatios and it won the Golden Globe for best film. It's got an all-star cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt in a cameo and in the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Deepanjana Pal January 31, 2014 08:56:57 IST
12 years a slave review: A masterful tribute to human spirit

Even if the first association in your mind to the word "slave" is Britney Spears, a title like 12 Years A Slave doesn't sound like a fun movie. Add to this director Steve McQueen, and you know there's gloom ahead. McQueen managed to make a graphic threesome in a film about sex addiction come across as painfully tormented. When a man can turn consensual sex into a disturbing viewing experience, then imagine what he'll do in a film about slavery.

There are obvious reasons why it may seem like a good idea to give 12 Years A Slave a miss. It's not funny, it's brutal, and it is depressing. So why watch an overwhelmingly sad film about a man who spends 12 years as a slave in faraway America, back in the 19th century? What does it matter to you and me here in India? Why suffer more than two hours of a cinematic lecture about a culture and history that isn't ours? Because 12 Years A Slave is about something we'd all like to believe we have: the human spirit.

The film has scored nine Oscar nominations and it won the Golden Globe for best film. It's got an all-star cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt in a cameo and in the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

McQueen himself is one of the film's draws. He began his career as an artist, winning Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 1999, and transitioned gracefully from short, art films to full length feature films. McQueen's art works ranged from the curious (like Deadpan, a short film in which he's standing in front of a house's facade that comes crashing down towards him) to the political Carib's Leap/Western Deep (two complementary films, one about the indigenous people of Grenada and the second about the miners who work in one of the deepest gold mines in the world).

12 years a slave review A masterful tribute to human spirit

The movie is brutal and depressing, but is a tribute to human spirit

McQueen's first full-length film was the critically-acclaimed Hunger (2008) and in 2013, he's the Oscar-nominated director of a film with a star cast. He's also managed what the likes of David Fincher couldn't: 12 Years A Slave is being released in India with no cuts, despite there being some graphic imagery.

McQueen may be only three films old, but his mastery over the moving parts of filmmaking is awe-inspiring in 12 Years A Slave. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography is gorgeous, lacing breathtaking shots of willow trees with menace and misery, reminding the viewer that the white plantation owners treat nature with the same callous greed that they do the slaves (in contrast are the Native Americans, whom we glimpse in one rare, happy shot).

The way McQueen embeds these visually beautiful moments into Solomon's story works not as relief, but to sharpen the focus on the ugliness Solomon experiences. The film also has a remarkable background score that uses instrumental fragments, the sound of cicadas and frogs, as well as cotton-picking songs to heartbreaking effect.

In many ways, 12 Years A Slave is the most accessible of McQueen's work. While nuances were intricately woven into the characters and onscreen action in both Hunger and Shame (2011), 12 Years A Slave is a more straightforward story. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there's no mistaking one for the other. And wouldn't you know that Brad Pitt, who is also one of the film's producers, plays the role of a saviour?

The hero of the film is Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. For 12 years, he becomes a slave called Platt, working first for a benevolent plantation owner (Cumberbatch as Master Ford) and then a viciously evil one (Fassbender as Edwin Epps). At the start of his ordeal, Solomon defiantly tells a fellow abductee he wants to live, not merely survive. A few scenes later, Solomon adjusts his ambitions and decides that survival will be enough. He learns to be quiet, hides that he can read and write, blinkers himself to other people's suffering — all the while nursing hope that he will be able to send news to the north and someone will come to declare he is not Platt the "nigger", but Solomon the free man.

While there is a lot of violence in 12 Years A Slave, there's very little gore in the film. This are no Tarantino-esque sprays of blood. Instead, McQueen relies upon suggestion: the sight of a shirt that's bloody and tattered, the piteous wails of a woman who has been brutalised, the nightmare of hanging from a noose and seeing no one around you dares to cut you free, the fleeting shot of a young woman with a scarred face and a bloody eye. That said, the few scenes where slaves tend to the mutilated backs of those who have been whipped aren't easy on the eye. It's just that there are a lot of horrors competing for your attention and some, unlike the sight of a whipped back, can't be avoided if you close your eyes for a moment or two.

In the second plantation, Solomon meets Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). She's a cotton picker who picks five times as much as anyone else, is the object of Epps's lust and yet, is treated brutally by both Epps and his jealous wife. In a cast that delivers powerful, ferocious performances, Nyong'o's portrayal of Patsey stands out. Ejiofor has a number of brilliant moments in 12 Years A Slave, like when Solomon is almost lynched and later, a scene in which he sits, cocooned by the sound of buzzing cicadas, and wonders whether his dreams of escaping slavery are fantasies.

However, the scene that really has the effect of a whiplash is one in which Patsey is accused by Epps of trying to run away. She tells Epps that she had gone to a nearby plantation to ask the mistress for a bar of soap. All she wants, in exchange for being raped repeatedly and still picking five times as much cotton as any picker on Epps's plantation every day, is a tiny bar of soap so that she can clean herself and not gag at her own smell. Epps's response to this pathetic admission is to have her whipped for stepping off the plantation without his permission.

McQueen has circled around racism and its histories in a few of his previous works. Bear, for instance, had two black men taunting one another. In Carib's Land, he told the story of the original people of Grenada, the Caribs, who resisted coming under the yoke of French colonialism by committing suicide. Western Deep showed black miners who withstood terrible working conditions in order to survive. Resistance to an oppressive, racist system can take many forms and for McQueen, there's no valuing one over the other. In 12 Years A Slave, Solomon resists a couple of times, but mostly he tunes himself to passive subservience. It isn't necessarily the best option, though, given how being obedient doesn't save Patsey from any of Epps's cruel whims.

Even as Solomon's story comes to its conclusion, with McQueen allowing his characters smatterings of hope and happiness, what lingers is the image of Patsey who has no way out of Epps's plantation because she is his "property", and the fact that Solomon went from unremarkable to memorable because of his 12 years as a slave.

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