I've watched hundreds of films throughout my short 17-year history and I've seen some difficult cinema. Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List can make anyone quiver in shame as it shows the despicable reality of the Holocaust. Paul Greengrass' United 93, which is almost an emotional biopic of America's darkest hour, makes me want to crawl up into a ball and cry. And finally, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, one of the highest grossing films of all-time, shows the labour of our sins fleshed out into the beaten skin of an honest man. And still, no one threw these hyperbolic terms out saying, "it's too hard watch."
But, 12 Years a Slave is very, very hard to watch.
Is it because this is an American tragedy, done by Americans? Is it the guilt of someone's ancestors manifesting it in your tear ducts? I can't answer that. Only the person who says it can. The structure of this country is built on the backs and blood of slaves. But slavery didn't just exist in America, it was everywhere. It occurred for over 200 years and believe it or not, it still exists in some parts of the world today.
If you've seen McQueen's other works then you'll more or less know what kind of movie to expect (if you haven't then please stop reading and watch Hunger and Shame). 12 Years a Slave is dark and raw, it exposes everything, without sugarcoating it. It is definitely hard to watch; but in my opinion, it is not only worth watching but necessary. Films exploring themes of slavery are few and far in between and never has one been quite as exhaustive and effective as this one.
McQueen is a fearless filmmaker, continuing his streak of unfiltered brutality within human depths. He frames his actors' faces in extreme close-up, the eyes staring into despair, the nostrils fuming in aggression. Naked flesh are shown not because of erotic content, but rather because of desperation and futility. Long takes and wide shots are not uncommon in his films, and here they showcase a plethora of fantastic scenes and performances that work to discomfort the viewer as much as possible. McQueen doesn't just allow the audience to tackle slavery, he guts the audience and leaves them for the consequences. This is an extremely uncomfortable film to watch. Beautifully shot locations are placeholders for unsettling sequences before and after, contemplated by Hans Zimmer's poignant and at times horrifying score. This all works to create a nightmarish time and place where hell walks on Earth. Steve McQueen has created another masterpiece.
The film is based on the real story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery in Louisiana. As the film begins, we are exposed to his talent as a musician (he plays the violin) and get a glimpse of the life he leads with his wife and two children. All is well until he meets two men who seem taken by his music and want to bring him along with them so he can play at various events. When Solomon wakes up in chains, his dark journey starts and the film never lets you take a break.
Central to all of this is the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. Ejiofor showcases that he is a natural force to be reckoned with in this film, after a decade of mostly supporting characters. He spaces out in despair as the camera lingers onto him for solid minutes, not a word spoken. Another sequence shows him mourning the death of a fellow worker, in which the singing of the surrounding group compels him and shakes him down to tears. These scenes follow earlier ones where he is a classy, free man in the upper states, mingling happily with the crowd and partaking in fanciful music sessions. It is a tour-de-force performance.
A fine ensemble of established and up-and-coming actors surround Ejiofor in his limelight - Paul Dano, Paul Giammati, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, even Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, but none so ferociously as McQueen regular Michael Fassbender as the despicable, sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps. So excellent and terrifying is Fassbender's portrayal of such a merciless and barbaric person, that the mere sight of him will either cause audience members unfamiliar to him to flinch.
There is a resounding honesty that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley inhabit. There are no tricks or gimmicks, no cheap takes on a side story or character that is put there for time filling or a life-lesson for Solomon to learn. Everything is genuine. Is the film heartbreaking? Oh my God yes. Did I cry for several minutes after the screening? Embarrassingly so. Have the images stayed with me ever since? Depressingly so. I was enamored the entire time, head to toe, moment to moment.