Steve McQueen may be the first black man to ever win the Oscar for best director but he has made a career for himself by going against the grain and tackling difficult and taboo issues, articulating them through his poignant and stark shot composition. After studying at NYU Tisch film school and promptly dropping out, McQueen attended Goldsmiths and began a career in visual installations. He established himself on the London scene as a major visual artist and won the Turner Prize in 1999 for his thought provoking work. In fact his career can be best summed up by his collaboration with Charlotte Rampling, a piece on resistance wherein McQueen shoots Rampling’s eyes in close up and then proceeds to prod an eyeball with his finger. As a director, he pokes and prods his audience into resistance through active looking; forcing eyes open and exposing them to a grotesque and disturbing truth.
12 Years A Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, an educated black man living a prosperous life with his small family in New York state who is then kidnapped and shipped to New Orleans to work on the plantations as a slave. Northrup is stripped of his dignity and his name and is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) but after an altercation with a slave worker, Northrup is forced to be sold onto a cotton Plantation to become property of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a ruthless landowner who wields a bible in one hand and a whip in the other and the film becomes a catalogue of horrors as Epps rules with an iron fist and is constantly putting his slaves through some new form of horrific subordination . Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a stunning performance supported by an excellent entourage, even Brad Pitt’s cameo is not enough to jar the film’s realist portrayal of the South.
McQueen’s education and skills in fine art are a major part of his films, in fact many critics find his favouring of aesthetics over narrative. Ed Gonzalez of Slant magazine complained that McQueen’s fixation on poetic imagery is detrimental to Solomon’s emotional development. However, there is a divide between Solomon and the other slaves that stretches further than mere background and cultural education. Rather than build solidarity with the other captives in the hope of establishing some form of social resistance his means for survival is his emotional distance, he must render himself as stoic as possible in order to live through the cruelties. He battles his very essence and repress all signs of his past in order to do so .
12 Years A Slave is a sensuous experience that immerses the audience in the subject matter. From the sweltering Louisana heat, to the immaculate sound production and score from Hans Zimmer, but foremost is the use of flesh as a commodity. Flesh is the central theme from the beginning of the film as the new slaves are stripped of their clothes once they reach the south Northrup’s body perseveres through a gauntlet of brutal erosion and the transformation from a healthy body to one knotted with scars from whipping and contorted from labour is chilling. Epps not only subordinates his slaves with physical violence but also sexual. For instance, he begins to admire one of his female slaves Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) because of the amount of cotton she can pick, she becomes his favourite and gets ‘preferential treatment’ which amounts to being the object of his wife’s disgust as well as the object of Epps twisted puritanical sexual desires.
McQueen has a predilection for unearthing stories that have been buried in our repressed collective memories for a long time. Hunger told the story of Bobby Sands, a member of the I.R.A who was incarcerated in the HM Prison maze where he suffered Guantanamo bay style torture and deprivation in solitary confinement. His only form of expression was to go on hunger strike and after 66 days he died. 12 Years A Slave is the most brutally honest depiction of slavery I have ever seen committed to film or television. Which in a way, is not a tremendous feat considering how meagerly the topic has been covered in film and television. Films such as Amistad and Django Unchained fail to truly capture the amorality and brutality of the period and end up being the product of the director’s vision as opposed to a historical testimonial. McQueen and his actors have re-opened the wound with 12 Years A Slave and established it as the definitive film on slavery.
Reviewed by Sean Gallen.