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12 Years a Slave

An unflinching, uncomfortable and entirely necessary modern classic.
By Tom Glasson
January 28, 2014
By Tom Glasson
January 28, 2014

The world is grey and there are few absolutes. That slavery is abhorrent, however, is not a matter for debate. It is a black and white issue based on the black and white issue that ought never have been an issue in the first place. For some reason, though, cinema — so often the most effective form of public debate — has either largely steered clear of it or, at best, touched upon it with altogether reckless abandon (Django Unchained).

Not so, 12 Years A Slave. In its own right, Steve McQueen's new movie is an extraordinarily accomplished and captivating piece, yet in the wider context of American history, both literary and filmic, it is nothing short of revelatory.

Adapted from the 1853 memoir of the same name, it chronicles with undaunting authenticity the story of Solomon Northup, a free man of the north who was abducted under the pretence of observing the Fugitive Slave Act, then secreted across the Mason-Dixie line where he was sold into slavery for the next 12 years.

Playing Northup is British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in an assured and career-defining role. Subjected to countless closeups by McQueen, Ejiofor's every expression speaks volumes, with his near-impercetible parting of lips or minisucle tilt of his shoulders marking the difference between irrepressible joy and despairing submission into subservience.

There are no weak links in the packed cast that also boasts Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt (who produced the film); however, it is newcomer Lupita Nyong'o who best supports Eijofor as 'Patsey' — his fellow slave and the subject of a violent, destructive infatuation by their master, Epps (Fassbender).

This is an unquestionably difficult film to watch; uncomfortable and unsettling for reasons that extend far beyond what transpires on screen. The enslavement of Northup — an educated, respectful and respected family man — feels an affront at every stage: he is conned, drugged, kidnapped, blackmailed, transported in secret, beaten and betrayed — even by those who were smart enough to recognise he was clearly never meant to be there.

And therein lies perhaps the most discomforting layer of all, because, of course, no one was meant to be there. Slavery was the affront, and the realisation that Northup's tragedy feels somehow more unjust than (for want of a less despicable expression) those of the 'normal slaves', is at once confronting and embarrassing. This imagined distinction between 'slavery' and 'unfair slavery' is as redundant as Todd Aiken's 2012 reference to 'legitimate rape', yet in 12 Years a Slave the sense that gradations of cruelty exist visits you repeatedly. There are good slavers and bad, you feel; cruel overseers and kinder ones, despicable racists and the just mostly despicable.

In his short carrer McQueen has already established himself as a director both prepared and determined to capture honest and unflinching representations of life, no matter how unattractive. Both Shame and Hunger cast their lights upon dark areas of the human condition, yet in 12 Years A Slave McQueen somehow goes even further.

One extended scene, for example, involves an uninterrupted and excrutiatingly graphic lashing that was so horrific it momentarily warranted turning away from the screen. As my eyes met those of my neighbour, it was clear we were far from alone in doing so, yet our temporary retreat from the film was in no way an indictment upon it. It should be unbearable to watch, and it is, but you must persist, because in 12 Years A Slave McQueen has crafted an enthralling, thoughtful and necessary modern classic.

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