12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity), Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) and Brad Pitt (Moneyball), is an unflinching look at the realities of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Based on a true story, the film follows Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free black man in New York who is drugged, abducted and shipped to the south to be sold as a slave.
An immediate comparison to this film may be last year’s Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino. However, the two films could not be more different. Django was not a movie primarily about slavery; it was a Tarantino flick more than anything else. Slavery was only used as a backdrop and excuse for his signature exaggerated, gleeful violence.
Nothing about McQueen’s films can be called gleeful. Both Hunger and Shame were visceral portrayals of men in a descent. Here, again, a man descends.
12 Years depicts slavery as it was: inhumane brutality. Not only does Northup undergo physical torture, but he also begins to lose his identity as his years in captivity stretch onward. He takes on a false slave name and hides his ability to read, slowly losing more of himself the longer he remains a slave.
Northup’s life gets even worse with the introduction of Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Epps is a sadistic, cruel slave owner who enjoys the suffering of his “property.” In this performance, Fassbender is incredible. His Epps is genuinely terrifying. More than the lashings and beatings he delivers, his complete debasement of his slaves to mere commodities makes Epps one of the most despicable characters portrayed onscreen this year.
The camera never looks away, because McQueen wants to force the audience to see what slaves truly felt.
In contrast to the film’s realistic depiction of slavery, the score tries too hard to elicit emotions from the viewer. Hans Zimmer (Man of Steel, Inception) has made a soundtrack that is often overbearing and distracting. His loud horns and melodramatic strings actively clash with McQueen’s more subtle scenes.
12 Years a Slave presents one of the most brutal, realistic portrayals of slavery in recent memory. The camera never looks away because McQueen wants to force the audience to see what slaves truly felt. That is the least a modern audience can do: have the fortitude to witness what so many lived through.
McQueen’s repeated shots of slaves packed like cargo into a wagon or of Northup’s increasingly weary face, act as traumatic mementos. They burn the horrors of slavery into the collective viewer memory so that this part of US history is not forgotten. This film will not be either.