12 Years a Slave review: Moments of truthMovies
Trailer: 12 Years a Slave
In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York is abducted and sold into slavery.PT2M24S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2yqa7 620 349 December 4, 2013
- 12 Years a Slave
- Biopic, Drama
- Running time
- 134 min
- Steve McQueen
- Screen writer
- John Ridley, Solomon Northup
- Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender, Quvenzhané Wallis, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch
- OFLC rating
- MA 15+
Slavery is almost impossible to depict on film, like the Holocaust. To do so accurately is to make something unwatchable, unbearable, so every film makes compromises and adjustments to the truth.
Already, there are allegations around 12 Years a Slave, suggesting the original book was to some extent a fabrication, or at least an elaboration by the white co-writer David Wilson, to whom Solomon Northup recounted his tale, shortly after his liberation in January, 1853. To some extent, these are part of the dirty tricks campaign that accompanies every race for the Oscars. When it wins Best Picture, and it will, most of the mud will be washed away in the euphoria.
There is no doubt about the basic facts: Solomon was a free man, with a wife and children, living in Saratoga, New York, in 1841, when he was lured to Washington DC and abducted by slavers. He endured 12 years of horror on a series of plantations in central Louisiana before he got a message to his family.
Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave is among the Oscar frontrunners.
The book was published in 1853, as part of the campaign against slavery, then a subject of fierce debate in the northern and southern states. When it was republished in 1968 by two Louisiana-based historians, Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, they researched and annotated the book and confirmed much of its historical detail. Wilson may have added literary flourish, but Northup did go through the ordeal.
In a sense, questions about the book's veracity are a distraction. The bigger question is whether the film is an accurate portrayal of slavery as practised at that time in the southern states, and whether it is an effective adaptation as drama. Do we believe director Steve McQueen's version, and is it any more accurate than Alex Haley's Roots, the TV series from 1977 that kicked off the modern era of slave films? Haley claimed to have based his book on 10 years of research into his own family, but had later to admit that he copied a number of passages from a novel by Harold Courlander, The African. Haley's genealogical research has itself been heavily questioned. The mandingo fighting in Django Unchained is bogus too. There is no record of slaves being forced to fight to the death, except in 1970s blaxploitation films.
McQueen is drawn to stories of men trying to throw off their chains. Hunger was about the last days of Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands. Shame was about a sex addict. Michael Fassbender starred in both, and he appears here in a memorable portrayal as Edwin Epps, Solomon's cruellest owner. Brad Pitt, whose company got the film made, has a small but solid part as the only decent white man.
McQueen is British-born, but his father was from Grenada and his mother, Trinidad. Many of the estimated 12 million slaves transported across the Atlantic from the 16th to 19th centuries went through there. This is a personal story for him, perhaps a reconnection or expiation.
It is impossible to know his deeper reasons, but he has said that he wanted to see images of the slave trade. He believes movies have largely avoided the subject - which is true but explicable, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. How do you make it truthful and still watchable?
McQueen's main strategy is to keep the camera running. Long scenes are done as single takes, and the absence of edit points has an effect. When Solomon, renamed Platt after his abduction, is forced to stand for hours with his head in a noose, we have to stand there with him. When Epps forces Platt (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a superb performance) to take up a whip to flog another slave, the continuous shot makes it harder to look away. Edit points offer respite; McQueen forces us into the moment. He wants us to participate rather than observe. It is hardly a new idea but he does it with particular force and effectiveness, so that the film has a classical feel, a sense of solidity and grounded reality.
The cinematography of Sean Bobbitt, who has worked with McQueen since his student films, has a lot to do with the film's great sense of place and time. They don't overegg the pudding. In terms of technique, this is the quietest, least arty film McQueen has made, and more dramatically effective for that. The quiet is seething, of course.
The film is made with brakes on, but that emphasises the fury. And for once the dialogue, in a fine script by John Ridley, has a credible 19th-century fluency.
Not everything we see here happened. There are inventions, such as the murder of a slave on the ship that carries the abductees south to Louisiana. It is not in the book, but that's a quibble. The film tells an irresistibly powerful story, in a way that does not shirk the horror. It is unbearable to watch at times, but that is as it should be.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
Directed by Steve McQueen
Rated MA, 134 minutes