Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. Does this sad fact of life really need to be shoved down our throats by movie entertainment? Yes, as many times as possible so that hatred, bigotry and prejudice will be marked and branded as atrocities and crimes against humanity and not justified in the name of religion, economics or self-preservation.
Director Steve McQueen has, with two feature films viz Hunger and Shame, demonstrated a razor sharp ability for telling the unflinchingly unblemished truth about the unsavory aspects of life. Now with this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography – Twelve Years a Slave – McQueen turns his keen eye on a dark chapter in American history – slavery.
The plot is straight-forward enough. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free negro plying his trade as a carpenter and violinist in Saratoga, New York in the mid-1800s. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery at New Orleans. He remained a slave for 12 years before finally re-gaining his freedom. Throughout those 12 years, he had to confront and endure physical and mental abuse – not to mention the despair of losing his family and his own identity, and in the latter case, for the sake of survival.
The story itself may be simple but the making of the film is anything but. Everything – from the cinematography to the acting performances, from the art direction to the costume design – demonstrates an attention to detail. McQueen is renowned for the realism of his films and 12 Years a Slave is no different. The locations - four historic antebellum plantations – come alive on screen and one is able to experience what it was like to live in those times.
The excellent cast flesh out these historical characters with conviction. Apart from Ejiofor’s sympathetic portrayal of Northup, special mention must be made of Michael Fassbender’s sadistic Edwin Epps, Lupita Nyong’o's tragic Patsey, Paul Dano’s petty John Tibeats and Benedict Cumberbatch’s benevolent William Ford.
Not an easy or comfortable ride the moment Northup discovers his horrible plight – McQueen takes aim at the American South and Christianity and lays bare the monstrous attitudes that gives rise to the worst kind of behavior – that one segment of mankind is superior to the rest – demonstrated in Epps’ response to Northup’s accusation of sin – “A man does what he wants to his property” – even as he lashes the slave girl Patsey to an inch of her life.
Definitely a serious contender for best film of the year. Do not miss it!