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fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Twelve Years A Slave’ 

Engraving from Solomon Northrup's 'Twelve Years a Slave' (1853). Source: Wikipedia


Back in the mid-1970s I was mesmerised by the miniseries ‘Roots’, based on Alex Haley’s novel about his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, a young man who was captured by slave traders and transported to 18th century America. It was ground-breaking television, particularly for someone like me who knew nothing about slavery in the American South except for the 'Gone with the Wind' version. Forty years later, having just seen Steve McQueen’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’,  I realise that for all its considerable strengths, the 'Roots' miniseries was essentially a sanitised version of what happened.

Based on Solomon Northup’s memoir published in 1853, McQueen’s film is confronting in its realism. It begins in 1841 when Northup is a free man with a wife and two children, living a comfortable life in New York State. After being drugged and kidnapped, he finds himself enslaved on a Southern plantation where he witnesses and experiences unspeakable cruelty.

What makes the film particularly moving is the character of Solomon Northup himself, a man who never loses his humanity, even during the most dire moments of violence and pain. The brilliant British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings dignity and intelligence to his portrayal of Northup/Platt. (Platt is the name given to him by his kidnappers.)

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the plantation owner who shows sympathy towards Platt but refuses to listen to his claims that he is a free man and instead sells him to the demonic Mr Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Epps justifies his claims to ownership of his workers by quoting and paraphrasing Bible texts. The verse he doesn’t quote, however, is Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

As Patsey, the young woman raped and abused by Mr Etts, Lupita Nyong’o imbues her role with nobility and spirit. Alfre Woodard (from ‘How to Make an American Quilt’) makes a brief cameo appearance as Mistress Shaw, a former slave and now the wife of a neighbouring plantation owner, and the versatile Paul Giamatti (last seen in ‘Saving Mr Banks’) is a vile slave trader with a veneer of gentility.

It seems ironic that a film, which depicts inhumanity and violence in such a realistic way, should look so beautiful, but it does, and that’s due to the painterly cinematography and the lush Louisiana landscapes. Think Spanish moss hanging eerily from cypress trees, dark brooding swamps, cane fields stretching into the distance, and antebellum mansions with imposing columns and broad verandahs.

When I came home from the cinema, I went straight to my computer and searched for Solomon Northup’s memoir. Sure enough, there it was – a facsimile version complete with engravings. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. The good news is that the film is basically true to the book.

In summary: ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ is a powerful film. You’ll find parts of it difficult to watch but you’ll also find yourself so immersed in the story that it will linger long after you’ve left the cinema.

Expect this film to win a swag of Oscars at the 2014 Academy Awards including Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Deborah O’Brien

February 22, 2014