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9 January 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:27pm

Against nature: The abrasive brilliance of 12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen and his impressive cast give their all in a story of anguish, brutality and defiance.

By Ryan Gilbey

12 Years a Slave (15)
dir: Steve McQueen 

Twelve Years a Slave is a magnificent achievement and it is a career best for everyone involved, not least its artist-turned-director, Steve McQueen. In this story of the slavery of African Americans, he has found a suitable fit for the preoccupation with spiritual and corporeal punishment seen in his earlier films (the hypnotic Hunger and the grave, inadvertently hilarious Shame). It is a perfect match of sensibility and subject matter and it also provides a release valve for an emotional indignation not previously expressed in McQueen’s films. Any shortcomings can be blamed on the difficulties of dramatising a story about suffering in a way that puts the oppressed on a level footing with their tormentors.

There could surely be no narrative of slavery more accessible to a wide audience than the life of Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose 1853 memoir has been adapted by the screenwriter John Ridley. This is not to say that anyone could have done it, only that it appeals to a sense of cosmic injustice. Solomon is a free man at the start of his story, an African-American violinist and father-of-two who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he enjoys greater social and material privileges than many of his white neighbours. When he wakes one morning to find he has been sold into slavery by his supposed benefactors, his disorientation has a Twilight Zone quality: his identity and social status have been overwritten; even his name has been replaced. When he objects, he is beaten with a wooden paddle until it breaks. The miracle is that he never does.

If we don’t sense that resilient core, the film cannot work. Fortunately it remains scientifically proven that no one can gaze upon Ejiofor’s face and remain impassive. This British actor is a magnetic presence, calm and watchful rather than demonstrative. Most of his performance is comprised of reaction shots as he surveys his new surroundings with a horror that he is largely forbidden to express. McQueen is not shy when it comes to depicting gruesome injuries: we have never seen so graphically the effect on flesh of protracted whipping. But it is just as disturbing when brutality is relegated to the background – slaves being beaten in the distance while others pick cotton in the foreground, or Solomon trudging past lynched bodies. In his silent absorption of each wrong we gain an understanding of the psychological state of the slave. Ejiofor shows that in this case it is possible to be victimised without becoming a victim.

Many people try their best to turn him into one. The itinerant nature of Solomon’s years in slavery invites us to judge each new antagonist against the last. The plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) might be part of the infrastructure of oppression but he is civilised, his cowardice excusable, next to the snivelling carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano) who attempts to lynch Solomon on Ford’s estate. Even he is almost an ally compared to who comes next. We know from the first shot of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) reading aloud from the Bible that he will be a man of implacable temperament. What shocks is the inventiveness of his sadism and the unusual part played by his wife (Sarah Paulson). Solomon and hisfellow slave, the crushed, serene Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) become like children in an ugly divorce, each parent scoring points by abusing the other’s cherished child.

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The danger here is that the sadists become more clearly defined in their atrocities than the slaves ever do in their subjugation. Many of the African-American characters blur into a mass of pain, whereas those wielding the whip have the virtue – in narrative terms, at least – of being highly distinguishable in their cruelty. (Violence is more visually dynamic than pacifism.) The unusualness of Solomon’s story also risks turning it into a specific aberration, rather than one representative of slavery as a whole. No one deserves to be owned but there is a sense that he, duped into captivity, merits it even less. We want to cry, “He wasn’t even meant to be a slave!” when we should be thinking: “Nobody was.”

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It would be churlish to suggest that this diminishes the film; it only makes it more complex. For his part, McQueen does everything right. He has commissioned an unusually abrasive score from Hans Zimmer, full of indignant foghorns and orchestral churning that suggests metal buckling under force. Every detail is imbued with meaning, down to the shots that track sideways during scenes of extravagant violence. McQueen prefers Sean Bobbitt’s camera to move from right to left, defying the natural passage of our eyes, which try instinctively to read an image from left to right. Like slavery, it goes against nature.