Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedit Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt
NEVER one to shy away from human privation, be it in Hunger or Shame, McQueen offers here in one horrific scene the brutality of slavery and the helplessness of blacks against their white masters. Solomon (Ejiofor) has been hung by his neck on a tree, his feet barely skimming the muddy ground below, for raising his hand against a particularly sadist farm overseer. As day turns to evening, he hangs there for a full five minutes on screen, making unforgettable gagging sounds as life continues around him. As McQueen’s camera turns briefly away to show the white mistress of the household standing watching at a distance, we hear the bright chirping of birds, the only sound penetrating the cool, white walls of those huge houses overlooking the harsh fields of America’s south.
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12 Years A Slave has several such disturbing scenes as McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley bring vibrantly to screen the inhumanity of slavery. A true account written by Solomon Northrup, in the same name, it gives only a brief glimpse of Solomon’s life as a free man with his wife and two children in New York before he is kidnapped and sold as a slave in New Orleans. The year is 1841, several years before the Civil War, but Solomon lives as an equal, and is celebrated as an accomplished violin player.
Solomon’s kidnappers take away his name, and his slave masters try to break his identity. He is advised not to let on, by fellow slaves, that he can read and write for example — inviting him more cruelty — or to repeat his free status in the antagonistic south. The violin playing his masters can live with as an extra talent.
As Solomon, now called Platt, is sold, then bought by his first master, Ford (Cumberbatch), then his second, Epps (Fassbender), or loaned to a third, the film encapsulates all that could befell one who was considered a property “to be done to as pleased” by his master in those days. In one excruciating scene, the slaves are lined up in states of undress to show off their health and wares, a child is told to hop to show his strength, a mother is separated wailing from her children, who are sold separately, and all are forced to bathe together and in the open.
Lashings are routine and for women, sexual assault common. Ford is counted among the gentler masters for appreciating Platt’s opinions, but he too turns out the woman wailing for her children carelessly. He saves Platt from death by hanging, but turns him over to a master who, he confesses, is likely not to treat him well.
That would be Epps, or Fassbender, who revels in the role of a master increasingly desperate to underline his control over his slaves, including Patsy (Nyong’o), who he takes a fancy to. She is beautiful, a hard worker, and a helpless girl who he rapes almost against himself, and lets his jealous wife mistreat. Drunk, he chases her openly, and vicious, he lashes her almost to death. One night Patsy comes to Platt, asking him to kill her. It’s another scene of almost unbearable pain, particularly as Platt turns her back and Patsy sobs into the night.
Does 12 Years A Slave, nominated for nine Oscars, go out of its way to not let anything out, as criticised by some? Perhaps, particularly when Pitt, also the producer, turns up in the jarring, flowing blond-hair role of the Canadian abolitionist who came to Platt’s rescue. However, it looks that way because few have turned as harsh an eye on this chapter of American history.