12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s scorching drama exposes the evil behind that ‘peculiar institution’

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Director: Steve McQueen
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 2 hrs 14 mins

To say that Steve McQueen's lacerating drama is the best American film about slavery is to say very little. It is sobering to note that, throughout its 100-year history, "liberal" Hollywood has expressed no interest in addressing the subject from the slave's perspective. Though hardly any sort of sober treatise, Django Unchained did, at least, put an African-American at the heart of the story. What else? Well, the least said about attitudes to race in Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation the soonest mended.

So, 12 Years a Slave carries a weight of responsibility on its shoulders. McQueen and his screenwriter, John Ridley, have turned to a much-admired antebellum memoir by Solomon Northup concerning a free Northerner kidnapped and dispatched into the horrors of institutionalised servitude.

The resulting film is brutal, astringent and unrelentingly suffocating. Chiwetel Ejiofor, finally getting the high-profile lead he deserves, seethes with the injustice Northrup is rarely allowed to express. The subject has the film it deserves. Yet it took a director from South London to get the thing made.

12 Years a Slave marks a definite advance for McQueen. Emerging from the world of video art, the director used his gift for composing hypnotic long shots to bring an abstract oddness to the incomparable Hunger and the unsettling Shame. A question remained as to whether he was able to tell a conventional story with a middle positioned between its beginning and its end (or whether he was interested in trying).


The new film sets minds at rest. Indeed, McQueen has managed a near-perfect blend of avant-garde sensibilities with surging narrative drive. Working again with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, he composes images that – should anyone be so perverse – could comfortably be looped in an art gallery: the paddle-wheel on a steamer; an array of itinerant native Americans.

The most striking sequence finds Northrup, hanged from a tree after daring to question his overseer’s ignorance, desperately keeping one toe in contact with the mud in an effort to avoid slow strangulation as everyday life goes on around him. Yet each of these shots has a purpose. All are part of a structure that leads us inexorably through shock, disgust, despair and an eventual drained resignation.

Along the way, McQueen and Ridley make telling points about the politics of oppression. Michael Fassbender is strikingly malevolent as the near-deranged plantation owner with whom Northrup eventually ends up. His continuing molestation of a young female slave (played with awful desperation by the superb Lupita Nyong'o) allows the film some of its most psychologically disturbing moments.

A more interesting antagonist appears, however, in the first act of the film. The unavoidable Benedict Cumberbatch plays Ford, a man who believes it possible to be a humane slave owner. Life is somewhat more tolerable on his plantation, but the film makes it clear that his efforts to soften an inherently evil system speak only of self-delusion. One may as well try and reform a flood or a hurricane. Ultimately, Ford is himself corrupted by his involvement with this vile arrangement.

If one wished to pick nits, one might worry about the eventual arrival of Brad Pitt as a saintly saviour from heavenly Canada. A producer on the film, Mr Pitt would have been better advised to stand beneath a less starry halo. One could also whinge that the frequent tableaux of oppressed figures are occasionally arranged just a little too artfully.

Never mind. 12 Years a Slave offers the sort of raw wallop to the senses that, among young directors of drama, only McQueen can manage. Everyone is on top form. Even Hans Zimmer, composer of cliff-sized chords, manages to restrain himself in admirable style.

The American South’s “peculiar institution” has, it seems, become a fit topic for narrative cinema. And it only took a century.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist