Roll Jordan roll.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Ford), Sarah Paulson (Mary Epps), Brad Pitt (Samuel Bass), Paul Dano (John Tibeats) Adepero Oduye (Eliza) and Paul Giamatti (Theophilus Freeman) et al.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of the 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The film chronicles Northup’s kidnapping while being a free man, becoming a slave through to his return to his family twelve years later.
The story is harrowing, depressing and unfortunately, true. Northup’s first owner is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a relatively benevolent master who appreciates Northup’s gift for music (a consistent theme of the film). The trouble is, also working on Ford’s farm is the incredibly racist John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who would like nothing more than to see Northup hung. Tibeats attacks Northup – who fights back – leading to an attempted lynching of Northup bringing me on to my first point.
The lynching scene is disgusting, a very long take of Northup struggling to keep his neck up and away from the noose, choking the whole time and squelching his feet in the mud underneath. It’s a brutal scene that really sets the tone for the remainder of the film. While watching it, I could feel my neck tightening, struggling to cope with the visual onslaught that was laid before me – perhaps what was worse than the hanging was what the other slaves were doing: nothing. Other slaves were getting on with their own business, not wishing to get involved, to avoid a similar punishment. Despite the scene’s brutal and unpleasant nature, it is shot beautifully.
Indeed, 12 Years a Slave is wonderfully shot, Steve McQueen (with his history in art) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt have created a beautiful piece of film from such a dark place. Often we are given static shots of trees, lakes, etc… with fantastic mixing colours, showing us that such tranquillity and beauty can hide all manner of evils. It’s no mistake that most scenes are shot in such idyllic places; it can mean what’s suggested above and another key theme of the film. Northup looks for light in such dark places, perhaps the idyllic settings and lush colours suggest this, or maybe the film just looks very rich, with deep colours and detailed: it is a sight to behold.
Northup is then sold on by Ford, who can no longer keep him safe. This is where Michael Fassbender comes in as Edwin Epps – a violent master who requires 200 pounds of cotton to be picked a day – who uses bible verses to claim his right to abuse the slaves he owns. In this latter half of the film, Northup is given a real test of character when asked to kill a fellow slave, every scene in this section of the film is hard to watch as the tension between all the characters rises and the physical and mental strain on Northup is clear to see with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mesmerising performance.
Performance is spectacular from the majority of the cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a stunning performance as a once strong man, broken by violence and oppression. What’s particularly great about his performance is his humility and kind nature – one scene in particular will bring even the steeliest of hearts to tears: where the slaves are mourning someone they lost all singing “roll Jordan, roll”, when Northup joins in, man, you will be hard-pressed to not feel a lump in your throat. Besides Ejiofor however is Michael Fassbender, giving the performance of his career as Edwin Epps. He has such a magnificent and terrifying presence on screen that he almost steals the show; he is terrifying to watch, yet at times he is broken, humanising him in such a way that often slave masters are not.
However, 12 Years a Slave has flaws. We do not spend enough time with Ford and Tibeats, more of Paul Dano on screen is always a good thing, even if he is playing a vile racist, and Cumberbatch does not get quite enough screen time. While the long, still shots look very nice, they do detract slightly from the pacing of the film, taking you out of the narrative just long enough to become a minor annoyance. But the biggest problem of them all is Brad Pitt. Pitt plays a carpenter named Bass who acts as a voice of reason and justice, talking to Epps about the freeing of slaves in a very Jesus-like manner. Of course, Pitt’s character was required to keep integrity with the source material and to act as the man who ultimately frees Northup. The trouble is, he just feels sorely out of place and really sticks out like a sore thumb.
His dialogue and acting come across as very ham-fisted and too cheesy considering the nature of the film and the rest of the cast. It’s a shame, the film goes so well until his visage fills the screen, completely at odds with the rest of the film. We did need someone to play Bass, especially considering everyone wants to see Northup become a free man once again just as he rightly deserves – it just should not have been Brad Pitt doing his best Jesus impression.
12 Years a Slave is a harrowing film about a harrowing subject that makes you feel bad about not just the past but also yourself. It is not a feel-good movie at all, but is beautifully shot, powerfully acted and superbly edited. It’s just a shame Brad Pitt comes along and cheeses all over the place.
Everyone needs to see this film; it’s an essential piece of art. Just be prepared to be horrified.