Steve McQueen gives his best shot at Oscar victory with this adaptation of the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the 1800s. Jam packed with excellent actors – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender (a McQueen regular), Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt (also producing), 12 Years is an outstanding work by some of the best actor and filmmakers working today.
When we meet Solomon (Ejiofor), he’s with his family in New York, playing the violin for small parties. It’s when he’s offered a better paying job, to go on tour with a group of musicians, that he is tricked and kidnapped and our 12 year journey begins. Thereafter we follow him as he is sold and sold again, passed around slavers as if he were an animal. His first is a plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a rascist carpenter working for him (Paul Dano), the second, a fiercely religious planter (Michael Fassbender) who tortures his workers and regularly rapes one of them (Lupita Nyong’o).
Northup tries to escape several times but is always stopped, and begins to accept that he’ll never see his wife and children again. Despite this and all the humiliating acts he is forced to perform, he retains his integrity, and keeps his ability to read and write secret.
12 Years is a difficult and painful watch, but if you can disassociate yourself from the horrors, it’s a filmic masterpiece; historically accurate, beautifully filmed (by Sean Bobbitt – McQueen’s regular collaborator) and filled with career-best performances.
After the whole raft of films about slavery released recently – Manderlay, Django Unchained, Lincoln, The Help and The Butler, you might think that there’s no ground left to cover, no lynchings we haven’t seen, but McQueen can prove you wrong, having now created the only film people will refer to when they talk about the Antebellum.
As with his previous features, Shame and Hunger, McQueen bravely exposes acts of violence and sexual abuse to the audience, showing us scenes that shock us with their brutality. However, this is exactly what makes 12 Years such a success – it’s unflinching faze into the ugly reality. Some critics have even mentioned that the levels of violence in the film could damage it’s chances of Oscar glory, but we will have to wait until January 16th to find out.
The film has already won a slew of awards, including Best Director for Steve McQueen by the New York Critics Circle, Best Picture by the Boston Society of Film Critics and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, as well as having been nominated for 7 Golden Globes and 8 BAFTAs.