12-Years-A-SlaveReview: 12 Years A Slave

By Samira Sawlani

Numerous books, films and academic texts have focused upon slavery and the slave trade.  It is unlikely though that any of these have captured and illustrated it in the harrowing and spectacular manner that Steve McQueen has done in his latest offering 12 Years A Slave.

The result is a film so powerful that it has the potential to have an impact upon an audience so deep, that they will be thinking about it, days, weeks maybe even months and years later.

Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a violinist in New York who was tricked and sold into slavery, the film depicts Northup’s journey from free and respected family man to a slave finding himself in the clutches of malicious and torturous slave owner Edwin Epps.

What begins is a torturous, graphic yet magnificently made insight into the utter horrors of slavery. Portrayed by an Oscar deserving Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon Northup is a man who, though he witnesses and experiences an abhorrent reality, does not give up hope of once again being free. Around him, are other slaves such as Eliza (played by Adepero Oduye) whose screams when her children are taken away from her will echo in the mind long after the film is over. 

Michael Fassbender’s almost psychotic performance as slave owner Epps is traumatising, his obsession with slave Patsey, played by the spectacular Lupita Nyong’o, is uncomfortable to witness.

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In excruciating scenes we witness Patsey be beaten and raped by Epps and violently abused by his jealous wife, played by a chilling Sarah Paulson. Similarly hard hitting scenes of lynching, hangings, whippings, movement of slaves and life on plantations are unapologetic as McQueen bears all. There are moments where scenes which are torturous continue in a relentless fashion and you wish for a moment of respite, but there is none.

The film not only focusses upon the victimisation of the slaves and their experience, it gives brave attention to how volatile access to power made the white owners. This in itself is will leave many feeling uncomfortable and is an essential part of the story which Steve McQueen has touched upon.  A particular scene which will stay with viewers is one in which Solomon is forced to lash Patsey on orders of his master, blood, tears and screams is what we are left with. This part of the film encapsulates the notion of slavery, where a man is forced to carry out an act so alien to his own nature, because he no longer owns his own will or choices.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes and expressions speak in every scene, his manner and speech so haunting and painful that it almost becomes unbearable to watch. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey dominates the screen as a young woman violated in the worst ways possible, her performance seeming effortless.

So why should you go see 12 Years A Slave? It is not ‘entertainment’ nor can one imagine it sets out to be so. It is easy to say that it must be watched in order to gain some insight into the injustices the human race are capable of, to gain an appreciation of what those caught up in the slave trade went through, and to witness filmmaking and acting of the highest calibre.

Yes all these are reasons to do so, but just as important is to remember that the film is the true story of one brave man and echoes in it the reality of so many others, who were silenced. 

Men and women who suffered the worst horrors imaginable and never found freedom. 12 Years A Slave gives the world an opportunity to gain a miniscule insight into what their lives were like, what oppression really is and how it should never be repeated again. 

Watch the film, pay tribute to them. Educate yourself. 

Samira Sawlani