12 Years A Slave is a film of distinct contradictions, at first that lead me to conclude that these were weaknesses. Now I see that they leave the film with a great sense of gravitas.
The first of these contradictions lies within the story itself. The time in American history that is depicted here is clearly one of the darkest periods of all human history. The evils that beset millions can never be justified or forgotten and director Steve McQueen makes sure that does not go unnoticed.
This story in particular though deals with one of the few that got out alive. Solomon Northup never had an easy time, he was after a free man kidnapped and sold, but his amazing story ends with his return to his home and the family he was torn from. This disparity I believed would take the sting out of the larger truth, by focusing on one of the rare slave tales with a happy ending rather than the wider situation.
By focusing though on this man, the audience is given a more relatable character to follow. Given that he is formerly a free man, he has a more substantial education. The “happy” ending also grants much needed levity, a more satisfying end for the average cinema goer if you will.
The second of these disparities lies with Steve McQueen. Clearly going though the motions, from his arthouse routes to something larger, the film straddles the lines. It’s neither as arthouse as previous offerings Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) nor as grandiose any of its contemporaries in the period piece genre. This gives the film a somewhat wobbly aesthetic that is luckily only slightly distracting.
What stands out in this film is the depth of talent on display here. Benedict Cumberbatch plays nice guy slave owner Mr. Ford, Michael Fassbender plays drunken, hateful slave owner Edwin Epps and Paul Giamatti plays a seller of slaves. Each of them performs as well as you’d expect. Brad Pitt shows up briefly, rather distractingly so, as an abolitionist.
The revelation though is Chwitel Ejiofor. His Solomon Grundy is a man of such tragic presence that despite all the hardships he struggles through, you can never take your eyes off him. His ascendency from strong supporting actor to leading man is a long time coming and we can only hope he continues to work with Steve McQueen as Fassbender has. Both relationships have yielded magnetic results and as the audience, you can only beg for more.
– Oliver Drew