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Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave

February 23rd 2014

12 Years A Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man born in New York state who, in 1841, is duped and kidnapped in Washington DC and sold into slavery. It is both compelling yet uncomfortable to watch, and will no doubt leave you in a reflective mood when it’s all over.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon, drawing you in as he moves from sheer bewilderment at the circumstances he finds himself in, to a steely resignation that is tempered by a strong will to not just survive, but to live. An intelligent man who has enjoyed freedom, culture and the love of his family, you can feel the indignation emanate from his very core. It goes against his every instinct to simply accept the will and instruction of his various ‘masters’.

Whilst his first master, plantation owner William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a relatively kind and somewhat compassionate man, the same cannot be said for his racist carpenter, John Tibeats. Resentful of Solomon and no doubt intimidated by the concept of a slave more intelligent than himself, tensions escalate between the two to the point where Tibeats attacks Northup, who fights back. Retribution is swift, in the form of an attempted lynching. Whilst it is unsuccessful, it is a protracted, poignant scene as Northup remains strung up like an animal for hours, bathed in sweat under the summer sun as the daily movements of the plantation go on around him. Portraying Tibeats, actor Paul Dano is excellent in highlighting his character’s cowardice, thinly veiled by his bullish and arrogant nature.

After the attempted lynching, Northup is sold to brutal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who believes his right to abuse his slaves is biblically sanctioned. It is on Epp’s plantation where the harsh reality of life as a slave is really focused on. Epps demands that each slave pick at least 200 pounds of cotton per day, or be beaten. Even achieving this is not enough to gain reprieve in any sense of the word. Young slave Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) picks 500 pounds of cotton on a daily basis, yet this only serves to further ignite the lust of Epps, who repeatedly rapes her, and the violent abuse of his envious wife.

Director Steve McQueen doesn’t overplay the brutality and violence, nor does he sugarcoat it in an attempt to make it more palatable. It is difficult to watch, more so because it is not merely a dramatised Hollywood concoction but a powerful interpretation of an honest account of unimaginable horror. Most harrowing is watching Patsey stripped and tied to a post, whipped first by an unwilling and devastated Solomon, then by a demonic Epps who continues to whip her until “meat and blood flow equally”. The catalyst for this brutality? Patsey leaving the plantation to get herself soap as Epps’ callous wife refuses her soap to clean herself.

Moving, unrelenting and driven by strong performances, 12 Years A Slave is certainly worth watching and is deserving of the critical acclaim it has received.

Review by Sarah Lowry