‘12 Years a Slave’: showing the ugly truth of America’s past

By David Combest

November 13, 2013

The British video artist and director Steve McQueen has proven to be an excellent and powerful filmmaker. In the ‘90s, McQueen was working on in-depth video art and brilliant short films.

In 2008, McQueen entered the world of movie making with his first feature film “Hunger,” which profiles a hunger strike lead by IRA member Bobby Sands as he sought to be established as a political prisoner and not be filed as a criminal. The film dealt with a loss of innocence for McQueen when he discovered the political and governmental forces that put pressure on the political prisoners.

McQueen released his second full-length film in 2011 entitled “Shame,” a film that follows a sex addict, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), in New York City as he goes into a downward spiral after his estranged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes back into his life. This movie consisted of themes dealing with addiction, relationships, isolation and alienation. Both “Hunger” and “Shame” star Michael Fassbender (as Bobby and Brandon), an actor who creates true art in the profession.  In his latest project, “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen creates another masterpiece in an already stellar portfolio of work.

“12 Years a Slave” is based on the memoir titled “Twelve Years a Slave” and follows the real life experience of Solomon Northup. Northup is a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in 1841 where he makes a living as a talented violinist. Tricked into thinking he is going on a business venture, he is drugged by his fellow “performers” and sold into slavery shortly after.

What follows is 12 brutal years of hardships as Solomon tries to return to his family while trying to keep his identity to himself in order to survive.

Looking at McQueen’s career, we see an artist who is not interested in the fluffy cinema we have today; instead he looks into the real and uncomfortable aspects of life. The artist treats these moments with a realistic seriousness. His strong directing is in full-range with the camera moving around the characters as they prepare for conflict. When the difficult scenes of torture or pain arrive, the camera pans down and the audience is in full view of it.

Where others might deviate away from the realism, McQueen embraces the discomfort and gives the audience an unabashed portrait of America’s past in “12 Years a Slave”.  This discomfort the audience encounters is purposeful and intentional to make the audience reflect on their future and the ugly truth of slavery.

Chiwetel Ejiofor transcends excellence as Northup and shows the depth of human experience that is universal.

This artist has the human experience and condition down to perfection, adding so much emotion and feeling to this very developed character that Chiwetel becomes Solomon. His performance is one of great talent.

It is refreshing to see spectacular acting when so many other films have average to poor performances by their actors, many times due to underdeveloped characters and bad writing. Once again McQueen’s modern day muse, Michael Fassbender, returns to star in McQueen’s work.  This time, Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a vile plantation owner who prides himself as a slave-breaker. Fassbender shows yet another aspect of his skill as he highlights the worst of humanity in his character.

Ejiofor and Fassbender are so talented that it adds to McQueen’s amazing directing to create a moving experience. Notable mentions in the cast are Brad Pitt, who plays a Canadian carpenter and Lupita Nyong’o who plays a slave that is lusted after by Epps.

“12 Years a Slave” is a film that looks into the horrors of slavery and a work that will not turn away during the painful moments. This film is a work of art and one can hardly wait to see what McQueen will add to his impressive resume.