Sorry to lighten the mood, but after a viewing of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, I think we all could to with a chuckle or a stiff drink. It is a brutal, powerful and unflinching portrayal of slavery during America's darkest period. Wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, without cutting scenes short in order to please censors or allow audiences take a breath. Viewers do no get off easily. 12 Years a Slave is so perfectly directed and true to the original book, but it doesn't provide us with anything else. Hope? Nah...maybe luck, and directly a year after the highly original Django Unchained was released, we are essentially flung back to the age old story of the powerless black slave. That isn't taking a pop at this movie, which is brilliant and based on a true story, hence can't stretch our imagination like Django Unchained did. It's a movie about human suffering and the evil men do, not a glimpse, but a long hard stare.
Based on a true story, we follow Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he is deceived and abducted, thrown into the world of the slave trade down south where he is treated like an animal. He is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sympathetic plantation owner who was just born in the wrong century. Northup survives and keeps his sanity by doing the best he can in plantation activities such as carpentry, construction and other slave pass times such as whippings, taunts and listening to a ridiculous sing along Run, Nigger, Run'. The tension between Northup and an ignorant overseer played by Paul Dano, who is actually threatening here (unlike There Will be Blood), eventually explodes into a great scene of catharsis. Northup, frustrated by this man's stupidity and abuse, fights back by lashing him with his own whip. However, the punishment for this outburst is severe and snaps the audience right back to the heinous reality. This punishment unfolds slowly in a great scene as Northup is lynched, but survives only by pushing himself up on the mud with his tippy toes. This scene plays out for what seems like eternity, from day till dusk we witness him struggle until he is cut down.
This extension of scenes and refusal to cut away or even enhance it with music is the true achievement of McQueen's film. He lets his movie breath, allowing the fierce emotion and atrocities resonate with the spectator. After Northup is transferred to Master Edwin Epps' (Michael Fassbender) land, our young protagonist's health doesn't improve much. Like Di Caprio's Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, Epps looks for an excuse that allows him to continue this savagery. Epps' reasoning is religion rather than science and phrenology, but just as incorrect. His character is closer to Amon Goeth then Candie though. As he, like Ralph Fiennes terrifying character in Schindler's List (1993) is smitten by one of his victims. Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is Epps' Kryptonite when it comes to his cruelty. This adds layers to his character and the class system among the slaves that was previously explored in Django Unchained.
Another scene in which McQueen lets play out, and the movies most violent, is when Patsey takes a lashing, many lashings, so much so that you can feel the audience in the theatre getting angrier and angrier to the brink of fury. It's an extremely unsettling sequence. However, not all of these extended scenes are for the purpose to display violent acts. At some stage, the camera has a close up on Solomon as he stands alone in the muggy, swampy woods of Louisiana and takes in all the natural surroundings. We see exotic trees, hear birds and flies as if we were standing right there with him. Which brings me to the cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, who makes the antebellum south look like it could be a Butlin's family holiday package deal, if weren't home to all the horrendous evil shit. The camera glides through cotton and cane fields as if it were Huck Finn running amuck again. Sunsets, stars and moonlight are all captured beautifully looking over the racism below on Edwin Epps plantation.
The conclusion of 12 Years a Slave comes as no surprise as it is based on the memoirs written by Solomon Northup, who we know escaped this living hell in order to write the book. We are left with no satisfying catharsis like the explosive shootout at the end of Django Unchained, but we let out a mere sigh of relief. Northup was one of the very, very lucky individuals who escaped. This is a hard study of humanity and human bondage. It would be completely idiotic to compare 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained as they are completely different forms of film genre so I'll do so, because even though I have no problem with either films, there seems be a lingering aura with audience and critical reactions. I'm beginning to gather that many believe 12 Years is a more powerful and artistic film, "a real film". I don't buy that shit. Of course, McQueen's vision and portrayal of Solomon Northup's tremendous and harrowing story is courageous in terms of showing the extent of violence and trauma unleashed during this period, but it leaves nothing to the imagination. Tarantino's approach was subtle, delivered through a genre piece with an original story, a modern day fairytale that gave the black man and black audiences a sense of power and freedom. Obviously it was sensationalised for entertainment purposes, but it gave hope and propelled our imagination. If slavery were to occur again, which movie would you use as a guideline? As great and emotionally stirring as 12 Years a Slave is, it is a film for the past. Django Unchained is one for the future.