Friday, 7 February 2014

12 Years A Slave

Gruelling, unrelenting and difficult to watch all the way through to the final cut to black, 12 Years A Slave is one of those films that you don't get all too often. Tone wise, subject wise and quality wise, films that are easily comparable to The Shawshank Redemption aren't exactly ten a penny.

12 Years A Slave tells the real story of Solomon Northup (Chitwetel Ejiofor), an educated and free man in 1840s New York who is kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery where he was stripped of everything for a dozen years.

The film very quickly gets into the territory of hopelessness. Solomon is quickly stripped of his name, his identity and his entire self as he struggles to hide his true nature for fear of being treated differently by both his co-captives and his masters. A good slave is only good at one thing: working. Solomon's talents should betray his nature as a free man, but instead they only make him a tall poppy to be trimmed. He can think like an engineer, play the fiddle and read and write, all of which are his undoing at some point, showing how slavery would eventually deprive all its victims of anything that defines individuality.

The pain in experiencing 12 Years A Slave is twofold. The first is obviously the brutality of man's inhumanity to man. Michael Fassbender plays a truly awful slaveowner who sees his slaves as not only his property but as the playthings of his wife and himself. The cruelties which he, and most of the non-slave cast (bar two examples), visit on their victims are horrific and make for a harrowing watch. The second wave comes from the slaves themselves. Man's inhumanity to man only serves to breed yet more inhumanity. In a world where stepping out of line in any way is met with a lashing or worse, standing up for your fellow man becomes impossible. Eventually you have people sharing a common enemy turning on each other or, even more hurtfully, being indifferent to their co-captives' suffering. You end up with slave children playing tag only feet away from where a man hangs in a noose frantically trying to prop himself up and prolong his life.

The only problem with the rightful criticism of slavery in the tone of the film is the Chitewel's Solomon isn't supposed to be a slave. The main injustice of the film, as it is presented, is that a legally free man is stolen away from his family and illegally thrown into slavery. Not that the injustice is that anyone could be put in that position. The idea of the large scale inhumanity is only addressed in the closing scenes of the film, and quite hamhandedly done with one white man standing up to another to tell him off.  Solomon is presented as "better" and "different" than the rest of the slaves, and as such he's undeserving of his fate, where in reality none of them are. It works brilliantly as the singular story of the struggle one man goes through, but feels a little hollow in the bigger picture.

Technically though, it's pretty impeccable. The cinematography is beautiful, juxtaposing the ever sunkissed American South with cruel, visceral violence  creates an even more unsettling image than many slavery films can boast. Hans Zimmer's score manages to be almsot as emotionally effective as Ejiofor's powerful performance of a broken man surviving as best he can, and Steve McQueen's direction has created a number of emotionally affecting scenes that will be burned into the minds of many viewer's for a long time to come.

I'd prefer other films to win Best Picture at this year's Oscars, simply because this isn't my type of film, but 12 Years A Slave is a film that everybody should see. It's by no means a "enjoyable" watch, but it is a necessary one.

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