video: Regency Enterprises
What subject matter do you tackle after directing acclaimed films about a hunger strike and sex addiction? “My wife suggested I look into true accounts of slavery,” director Steve McQueen recalled. “She found this book, and as soon as she put it into my hand, that was it.” The book in question was the memoir 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup, the story of a free black man working as a violinist in Washington before suddenly being abducted and sold into slavery in Louisiana. McQueen’s film depicts Northup’s endless struggle to survive, prove his innocence and be reunited with his family.
Exceptional performances are imperative for a film that tackles such an immense and sadly neglected issue on the big screen. Deserved critical recognition for McQueen’s latest effort exceeds even that of his previous successes, Hunger and Shame, earning Academy Award nods for three of its main cast members – leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor, regular collaborator Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o – as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
Nyong’o is Patsey, a slave repeatedly tormented and raped by sadistic plantation owner, Edwin Epps, played by Fassbender. The scenes of her torture are as harrowing as anything you are ever likely to see in the cinema, and their delivery is a testament to Nyong’o’s conviction and acting prowess.
The monumental impression left by the film is aided by the cinematography, which brings accuracy to this representation of the unrelenting treatment of black slaves in 1840s America. McQueen’s decision to shoot on location in Louisiana allows the film to harness the beauty of a South that is as oppressive as its climate.
While the anticipated ending might seem sudden, the final scene is sure to shatter even the hardest of hearts, and audiences will be left stunned by this depiction of tormented life they have just witnessed on screen.
It may truly be, as some critics are calling it, “the most powerful film ever made.” Perhaps even the most moving that will ever be made. For what subject matter is more horrific than that of dehumanisation based on racial prejudice? While justice in the film was granted for one, McQueen reminds us that death was the only freedom for thousands of slaves who were forced to endure a lifetime of unthinkable abuse.
12 Years a Slave is a film you’ll never want to see again, but one you will appreciate for the milestone in film-making that it represents. The picture Hollywood feared to make has now been made and it affirms the right of art to speak the unspeakable.