Everyone knew about this film long before it ever went on general release. Partly due to its true story – that of Solomon Northup, a free man and a family man living in relative prosperity in New York state in 1841 who was betrayed and sold into slavery in Louisiana, and party due to the acclaim attached to its director Steve McQueen (whose two feature films to date so far, Hunger (08) and Shame (11), were both snubbed at the Oscars and yet commonly appear in ‘best films of the year’ lists) as well as the star studded cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup himself, Lupita Nyong’o as the female slave he tries to help, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti as southern plantation owners, and Brad Pitt as the travelling voice of reason.
For me, the first forty or so minutes of the film don’t really work, they don’t feel genuine, more like a sort of enforced darkness as Northup is sent southward and first experiences the brutality of his situation, like the heavy handed deliberate stamp of the director even though it is indeed a very dark tale he is portraying. Then, after this period, as Paul Dano vents his hatred on the protagonist we see him fight back and release some of the tension that’s been built up, in him and the audience, and this feels very real indeed. It’s a powerful scene, and from that point onward the film becomes increasingly enthralling.
McQueen has given himself a difficult job – telling this story over the period of more than a decade and yet attempting to make it quite intimate, and he has largely succeeded even if we are missing a lot of the political backdrop with the differing laws of North and South responsible for much of what we see happening, as well as little mention of the repercussions of Northup’s particular experiences as this was once upon a time a very well known story, as it is about to become again. Really throwing fuel on the fire is the director’s weapon of choice, Michael Fassbender, who absolutely revels in playing a composite villain that brutally tortures and sexually abuses his slaves. He really ignites the film, and introduces one of the most tricky aspects – sexual fetishism. A palpable sense of this is created for a small section of the film, with the air of perpetual fear and the excitement and adrenaline that that must bring, as well as the infusion of power within the abuser, an abuser that comes to love his slaves – but love them as mere toys to be played with for entertainment and the associated thrill of control.
Thus this film, whilst it focuses on the story of Northup and does not delve into the wider issues, is of a standard high enough to ask the audience to probe deeper into the mindset at work and the historical context, and yet also be careful not to simply label it a relic of the past. It does make sacrifices which take it away from a deeper examination of the human condition in order to tell its story, but it is successful in its exploration of darkness, albeit a slightly self-aware darkness, nonetheless.
McQueen has said he considers slavery in the American south to be somewhat missing from cinema in general, like a dirty secret no one is willing to talk about. I don’t think that’s really fair, but he has certainly brought it to the forefront of everyone’s attention in a way that is not going to be forgotten in a hurry, and it deservedly sits as one of the leading contenders in this year’s Oscars race.