12 Years A Slave does something that few films do well: If you have any kind of empathy at all you will leave the cinema feeling physically disgusting, a feeling which twenty four hours and two showers later, I still have yet to rid myself of, making it one of the most decidedly distasteful and unpleasant viewing experiences cinema has to offer. But given the subject matter, I think that’s kind of the point.
The last film that left me this way was The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas and both films give unapologetically honest accounts of parts of history most of us would rather forget. And after both screenings, there was silence in the theatre and a lot of heavy sniffing!
‘Roots’ for the 21st century, 12 Years A Slave follows the unfortunate story of Solomon Northup, a black American from New York state who lived during the 1800s while slavery was still widespread in the south. He is drugged and kidnapped by a couple of apparent performers under the guise of them giving him a job and sold into slavery. What follows is his brutally graphic account of what happened to him during his years as a slave and a shaming illustration of what human kind, at its worst, is capable of.
This a film that I think sinks or swims on acting performances. The central subject matter is so contrary to the beliefs we centre our society around today that I cannot imagine any of these roles were easy to play and yet we are treated to one flawless performance after another: Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberpatch, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt.
It’s interesting that in terms of subject matter it’s hard not to compare 12 Years A Slave to Django Unchained, which, by pure co-incidence was written and directed by a film-maker known for excessively violent movies. And yet I would say that between the two of them 12 Years A Slave is more violent. Tarantino violence is quite cartoony. We don’t really take it that seriously. 12 Years A Slave is not. It’s the type of violence you see in The Passion of The Christ. Gritty. Real. Incredibly hard to watch.
The directing is more subtle. There’s very little music. And in terms of structure and sequence construction, the subject matter is so intrinsically charged with emotion that there’s little need to artificially dramatise any of it. It speaks for itself.
Most shots were static – perhaps a representation of the freedomlessness of slaves? Interestingly, I noticed a lot of shallow lenses in scenes where horrific things were happening in the background. You’d have a slave sitting in the grass making daisy chains while in the background another slave tied to a tree being whipped and screaming. The shot focusses on the foreground, as if, as they would have had to, the slaves just blurred out the terrible things that happened to the others around them. Even towards the end, when Platt is picked up in a cart and taken off the cotton plantation leaving behind the female slave, almost the second he gets in the cart, McQueen pulls focus blurring out everything behind him. Everybody looks after number one.
It’s well worth seeing but be warned that as I’m sure I’ve made clear already, it’s not a feel good movie. I forbid anybody to take their girlfriend to see this movie and expect to get to first base afterwards. It’ll kill the mood like few films are capable of doing.
This is serious cinema at its most serious. It’s a huge achievement and an outstandingly well made film, for which I’m sure it will be duly recognised with awards season just around the corner. But if it works, and leaves you feeling as disgusting as it did me, I suggest you have waiting a DVD or iTunes copy of Django Unchained when you get home and go on a slaver killing spree!