“A noble and powerful film that has the boldness to stand up to history’s most shameful era!”
Steve McQueen is clearly a director whose films have shown us the most visceral changes to the human body, both physically and mentally and all within privileged environments. So it’s no surprise that his most undoubtedly bold and frankly best work-to-date is a tale of a man’s resilience over injustice through a vast time, set about in pre Civil War slavery. Much like Hunger and Shame, our protagonist is taken from that basic air of privilege into some form of psychological trap or prison they somehow can’t escape, but McQueen turns his most familiar concept on its head in a story in which we desperately want to reclaim privilege.
Set in 1841, based on a true story, New York violinist and free African-American Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), is invited along to Washington by two talent scouts, offering him lucrative work. But once he’s kidnapped and awakens in chains, thus begins a long and arduous road as he’s thrown into slavery, whilst holding on to the hope of being reunited his wife and two children once again.
But perhaps that feeling of wanting to seek comfort is something McQueen uses to his advantage throughout this film. He demonstrates the atrocities and the complete lack of human decency in the most visceral and explicit way you would expect his direction to do. As a piece of storytelling, it’s a tough ride, as storytelling on this subject of history should indeed be. It’s as though he wants you to feel each chain, each humiliating scenario these characters suffer, each crack of a master’s whip. Two distinct scenes in particular involving hanging and whipping, in which our camera lingers further than you wanted it to, further demonstrate its tough nature. On paper, it has all the hallmarks of an overcoming-the-odds movie, but never at any point are we ever guaranteed to get a satisfactory ending to our characters stories.
In comparison, other films that have addressed slavery such as Spielberg’s The Color Purple or Amistad, whilst being harsh experiences have never put you right in the shoes of our hero in such a way. Even Lincoln had the atrocities of slavery mainly in its background. If you’re looking for a Spielberg work to link it with, it has more of a relationship with Schindler’s List, about that idea of focusing a hard story right in amongst the worst pages of human history. While Color Purple and Amistad worked towards bringing slavery to the fore, they oddly felt detached from audiences in aspects, something which this movie instantly rights with its central performance in the form of Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Ejiofor is quite honestly outstanding. An actor whose done brilliantly in supporting roles, but has really come into his own carrying the weight of such a difficult movie on his shoulders as Solomon Northup. It’s the repressed anger and frustration of the complete inability to escape his new life that shows his inner strength just through his face and body language alone that’s most superb. Clinging onto the ideal that he may return to his previous life while all those around him are falling victim to brutal violence and degradation – even when he shows resilience through bursts of anger and standing up for himself. Ejiofor still has a fragility that reminds us he’s not invincible, but his will to keep going and keep living is all he has to hold onto. On the flip side, you have Michael Fassbender as Epps, this deeply angered and troubled plantation owner, given to him by Northup’s first initial buyer Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Mr Ford, a more favourable and diplomatic slave owner, but a slave owner nonetheless.
Fassbender goes against any type he’s played before and just doesn’t play your typical show piece villain, so to speak, he becomes this chaotic embodiment of madness whose shocking acts against what he calls his ‘property’ go miles beyond redemption. A notch up from Paul Dano‘s character, a servant whose whip-happy power to the brain antics are just as frightening, but Northup’s only source of hope come brilliantly in the form of fellow slave Lupita Nyongo‘s Patsy and Brad Pitt‘s walk on character, giving Solomon an immediate claim for comfort.
But while the violence is undoubtedly shocking, even more appalling is the social mistreatment and tension of our slave characters. Whether its moments in markets, slaves naked on display for buyers to assess, or the humiliation of being denied soap or forcefully singing to racial songs, that mistreatment is just as wrought. Songs also play an important aspect, many forced performances under a controlled atmosphere of racial songs are mirrored with that of the joyous and born again hymns and gospel songs our characters spontaneously sing. It’s beautifully shot, not only does McQueen use the searing heat bathed Alabama as this grand stage for his story to play out, but also as this relentless landscape our characters are visually reminded that their chains aren’t their real prison, but attempting escape ultimately is.
It’s a noble and powerful film that has the boldness to stand up to history’s most shameful era. Chiwetel Ejiofor is remarkable, genuine and captivating, with its supporting cast also superb. Steve McQueen has further risen his artistic abilities to new heights to produce a deeply affecting film.