Title: 12 Years a Slave
Country: USA, UK
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Steve McQueen
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Liza J. Bennett
Michael K. Williams
It takes an emotional toll to watch Steve McQueen’s poignant 2013 BEST PICTURE winner of the Academy awards, adapted from the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man is sold into slavery for 12 years in the antebellum United States.
As the third feature film from UK auteur Steve McQueen (after HUNGER 2008 and SHAME 2011), 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a metamorphic achievement for his director competence, comes to grips with the grave source material, and transposes the text into a visually stupefying and inwardly resounding piece of cinematic treasure, compels audience to vicariously undergo the trials and tribulations of Solomon (Ejiofor) and his fellow black slaves, and to corroborate us the price of freedom is hard-won merely 150 years ago, we might say we have far progressed above the stupidity and narrow-mindedness portrays among the white folks in the film, and slavery is rather an antiquated concept, however, whether this self-aware moral improvement has reached its end of line, or 150 years later, when we our progeny harks back, we will be plainly as anachronistic as those pathetic, barbarous and abominable predecessors.
I digress too far, but I do intend to reiterate the value of this film, not because slavery is obsolete so we contemporaries have no urgency to watch it, in fact, we are in absolute obligation to reflect on those historic iniquity to alert ourselves not to recommit the same error, which we may agree, a large portion of people are treading the same water in the present climate.
Now, back to the film, McQueen and his team, in particular the long-time DP Sean Bobbitt, are luxuriating in their meticulous composition of each shot, the long-shot of Solomon hung on a tree struggling to life with his toes tipped on the ground while no one care or dare to set him loose (in the background, several slave kids frolicking around) is strikingly daunting to behold, whether white or black, their mentality is ingrainedly impaired; intermittently, the breathtakingly picturesque topographic shots of the southern land (the bayou, the cotton field or the windy woods) seamlessly transition the chronicle into another twist or perturbation.
The central dramatis personae is electrifying to the core, Ejiofor whole-heartedly radiates in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and every single take lingers on his bubble-eyed physiognomy is unimpeachably soul-stirring, his immaculate dedication oozes Solomon’s despair, angst and persistence. Fassbender, McQueen’s fixed leading man, lends himself to the meaty villain role, the outright racist plantation owner Edwin Epps,the dichotomy of his libido-driven infatuation with the young slave girl Patsey (Nyong’o) and the iron-clad truth she will never be completely his possession, is the centrepiece which culminates in an appalling whipping sequence where McQueen unbendingly fixates on Patsey’s heartbreaking wail and the horrid lacerations, Nyong’o is no doubt meritorious for her Oscar-win with her debut, her final scene when seeing off Solomon to his freedom with both yearning (for herself) and felicity (for him) has been encapsulated with pitch perfect verisimilitude.
Further on, besides those three Oscar-nominated lucky ones, it is a handful of under-praised but equally memorable performances, Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw) and Adepero Oduye (Eliza) all steal the limelight when their meagre screen-time is on, Paulson is brilliant with her glacial frigidity and sharp callousness, Woodard nails the most ambiguous role in the film with her composed utterance and Oduye brings about a burst of volcanic theatricality in her tête-à-tête with Ejiofor. By contrast, the other male side players are less prominent, Pitt is the ultimate messiah for Solomon, but reservedly underlit, and Paul Dano is on the verge of being typecast as someone either compulsively creepy or maddening annoying.
John Ridley’s stern screenplay (the third Oscar win for the film) prunes the prolonged odyssey into a number of key chapters, carves out a clarified narrative arc while enlivening the jaded souls with terse lines full of understated connotations; Hans Zimmer’s score mingles with the movie’s awe-inspiring presentation of a history should never be forgotten, tallies with the credence of viewers’ spontaneity, unobtrusive, but superbly competent alongside this epic voyage, if you can stick to the very end, it is a film can sublimate your moral sentience, and Steve McQueen is a filmic wizard of sublime gravitas, at the age of 45, we can optimistically hope that his best has yet to come.