Many critically acclaimed films try to comment on significant issues, and as the name suggests, 12 Years a Slave focuses of the brutality of slavery. Based on his own memoirs, it follows the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity, Children of Men) a free black man in 1850s America who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery.
People say that it is a hard watch, and they’re not wrong. The content isn’t as disturbing when comparing to recent films such as Django Unchained, but it is made more impactful by Steve McQueen’s directing style. The majority of the scenes of abuse take place off screen, leaving the audience to use their imagination, and its worsened when it is shown. This is captured powerfully by Ejiofor, who forges such a strong emotional bond with the audience. He’s deservedly nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, and I think this can be seen in one scene where he starts singing to a work song, his delivery is intensely emotional, a broken man who has accepted his situation.
And while this is predominantly Ejiofor’s film, the supporting cast shouldn’t be overlooked. One of the most distinctive out roles was that of the plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus, Shame). He is a brilliant villain, not as an over-the-top megalomaniac, but a chilling representation of the cruelty of humanity. His introductory scene is him quoting the Bible to his slaves, reminding us that these kinds of people used religion to justify their sadistic cruelty, something that is especially relevant today with the presence of extremist groups.
We can see positive aspects of humanity as well. Benedict Cumberbatch (August: Osage County, Sherlock) appears as a relatively kind slave owner, despite that being an oxymoron by today’s standards, and Brad Pitt (12 Monkeys, The Departed) as friendly carpenter Bass. Pitt’s character probably has the most modern viewpoint, despite him sounding exactly like his Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds. However, the screen time dedicated to these roles is quite small, and I would have loved to see more of both Cumberbatch and Pitt.
12 Years a Slave isn’t a fun and comfortable film, but it is truly great cinema. Featuring a strong supporting cast, and driven by Ejiofor’s emotional lead role, it achieves what it set out to do: to bring slavery to the forefront of discussion and to generate thought and discussion.