The Turner Prize and the Academy Award for Best Picture; what, or whom, do the two awards have in common? At present, precisely no one – but in 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen has demanded that the Academy render him the first artist to have claimed both accolades. The film, centring on the genuine story of Solomon Northup’s kidnap into slavery in the United States pre-Civil War, is a fabulous third full-length feature from McQueen, topping the terrific Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008).
McQueen’s previous films found a central muse in Michael Fassbender, and while he does return as Northup’s most persistent ‘owner’, the main performance is from an astonishingly accomplished Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup himself. An educated musician with a family and livelihood, Solomon is tricked into travelling to Washington from his home in New York, and from there abducted into the South, where he is renamed and forced into labour. The horrors he endures from that point are constant and awful, and are on the film’s most important features, shining a spotlight onto the crimes society are at present in many ways wilfully forgetting.
Ejiofor’s every glance is loaded with the pain Solomon is enduring, and his interactions with other slaves are tinged with an inescapable pessimism and realism which at times alienates him from his peers. McQueen drops hints and indications throughout to remind us that Northup’s situation is not unique, and the rapidity with which characters enter and leave his life, often violently, is another comment on the nature of slavery.
Surrounding Ejiofor are a supporting cast of extreme quality, the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt lending authoritative performances as Northup’s fellow slave, and the various degrees of guilt felt by conflicted but nonetheless contemptible white owners. Pitt is a solitary light of optimism in the otherwise thoroughly hard-hitting picture. Fassbender, meanwhile, turns in yet another blinder as well, his alcoholic and rage-filled plantation owner filling audiences with as much revulsion as Northup, yet still managing to elicit shreds of empathy in his relationship with his cruel sister and his inability to connect.
In McQueen’s two previous films there have been shots which stay with you long after viewing. In Hunger, the extended staged dialogue; in Shame, Fassbender’s desperate run through Manhattan; in 12 Years a Slave, the whipping scene which comes near the film’s conclusion is so brutal, so traumatic, and so unforgiving, as to also be utterly unforgettable. It is a long lingering shot of emotional torture and physical destruction, and showcases the importance of this film’s attitude to the violence of the era of slavery. The film, more widely, is sumptuous, with shots of the swampy landscape breaking up the onslaught with eery beauty, and the soundtrack is not overbearing, McQueen favouring silence on numerous occasions, to let the true weight of circumstances soak in; often, the audience does so at the same time as Northup on-screen, desperately trying to remain in control of his emotions.
12 Years a Slave is a stunning film, and will deserve all the awards it must surely win in the season to come. Its significance, on top of its formal excellence, places it a level above the competition.