(out of 5)
A rarely told tale is that of Solomon Northup, a free musician from Saratoga who was hired by two men for a performance gig and then drugged and sold into captivity in the American south, his name changed and his identity wiped out to prevent him getting back to his own life. Northup, played with gravity by a riveting Chiwetel Ejiofor, spent twelve years enduring the horrors of a system of human commodification before being restored to his own life and writing his account for publication. While living in this dark period of history, usually softened by Hollywood in portrayals of the past, he is purchased by Benedict Cumberbatch as a man who foolishly thinks his soft attitudes towards his slaves means he is not immoral, then is sold to Michael Fassbender, charismatic and unforgettable yet again in his third Steve McQueen film, as a man proud of his ability to break even the toughest of souls. Northup witnesses the sadistic cruelty of a master who holds unholy dances in the middle of the night, forcing his slaves to entertain him with mock merriment, and who is obsessed with a beauty among his workers (Lupita Nyong’o making a terrific debut) which inspires a raging hatred from his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson, who tears any idea of the blissfully ignorant Southern Belle to shreds). What’s surprising about this visually striking piece is how strong it is despite what is missing: McQueen is an artist whose visual art background often means he is not interested in the inner conflicts of his characters, with Northup experiencing no ironic moments of grace amid the trauma to which he perpetually objects. I have no argument against the notion of slavery as pure evil, but the lack of irony to anything the main character goes through also means there is no sense of twelve years actually going by. Brad Pitt‘s Canadian carpenter with an abolitionist heart is the lynch-pin of the entire story, given the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is and forced to decide whether or not he has the courage to back up his convictions; his moral struggle is never seen, these characters never contemplate, they only act, and McQueen has no need to worry about whether or not they lose sleep over it. His complexity and depth are in his images instead, with horrific treatment of human bodies juxtaposed against the mundane realities of daily life, men hanging from trees or being beaten while right next to them people do laundry or chat. This acceptance of a monstrous reality is the indictment here and where the film finds its raging and powerful soul, carefully and methodically painting a world where no one connects and where hope dies in the slowly fading embers of a burned letter. It’s a film that blazes beautifully with a righteous and uncomplicated but never pompous or didactic anger, and those of us angered by movies designed to make white people feel comfortable with the past will relish the opportunity to throw films like The Help and The Patriot (hell, Mississippi Burning too if we’re feeling zealous) onto the garbage heap and leave them to rot.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt
Music by Hans Zimmer
Production Design by Adam Stockhausen
Costume Design by Patricia Norris
Film Editing by Joe Walker