Some films go beyond the realms of cinema and into a kind of reality that carries all the trappings of being a movie, but may as well be a form of documentary. I thought that about Zero Dark Thirty and last night I felt it again whilst watching 12 Years A Slave.
The story of Solomon Northup (as based on the man’s own memoirs) sees a free black American man being defied and then sold into deep south slavery. It is the most extreme vision of how life can change overnight.
But whereas with other biopics there is some Hollywood sugar coating and certain liberties taken with the truth, 12 Years A Slave unflinchingly shows the drawn out suffering and harrowing truth that sometimes in life there are no happy endings.
Steve McQueen is such an original directorial voice. In moments of sadness, horror, torture etc he doesn’t take the eye away from the pain; he holds it there. He forces you to watch something like the lashing of a slave for an amount of time that most filmmakers would consider audaciously brave. It is reminiscent of a comedy technique which would see a comedian repeat the same slapstick act over and over again, so that it starts funny, gets to the point where you feel bored of the joke, then it goes on so long that it becomes funny again. McQueen uses this same device to strike terror and shame on the audience. You watch a man struggle for life in a hangman’s noose for probably 4 minutes or so and the camera doesn’t move. You find that you go from anxiety and fear, to almost acceptance of the imagery and then back to horrified discomfort as the moment mercilessly continues.
The performances are note perfect across the board, particularly Michael Fassbender’s ruthless plantation owner Epps and of course Chiwetel Ejiofor’s turn as Solomon Northup himself. Again the film’s players come over more as people than characters in a story. There is a difficult reality to the dialogue and physicality of each performance that means this film comes literally to life. It feels like the truth and it hurts.
“I don’t want to survive, I want to live”
Shame is the overriding feeling that I left the theatre with. I am ashamed that the human race is capable of such atrocity. It is depressing that in real life there is no rainbow ending, only small victories wrapped around injustice and bureaucracy. Though we live in a society that recognises the horror of its past failings, there are still people who would welcome the return of such hierarchical and tyrannical nightmares, if it brought them a profit. Yes I’ve suddenly diverged into a rant about the human condition, but that is what Steve McQueen’s brilliant work forces you to do. It breeds anger, sadness and is smart enough to show that redemption is not as universal as it should be. There will always be those left behind.
12 Years A Slave is a masterful work. A technical accomplishment and a courageous telling of a damning historical tale. It’s hard to watch and it will stay with you. For these reasons it will more than likely take home the oscar, and that will not be undeserved.