As a contemporary visual artist, Steve McQueen ploughed his own furrow. When he made the transition to feature-length films, McQueen was equally uncompromising.
For his third feature, McQueen considers the slave trade from the perspective of a free black man, who was kidnapped in 1841 and suffered 12 years of abuse on the plantations of Louisiana before he was reunited with his loving family. Based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave is a masterpiece that sears into the retina with every artfully composed frame. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives with his wife Anne, daughter and son. An encounter with two seemingly respectable gentlemen changes Solomon’s life forever.
He wakes up in chains and learns he has been sold into slavery. Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) takes delivery of Solomon and ignores pleas for leniency. Solomon’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is kind but fate delivers the lead character to sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). He finds a means to escape with the help of an abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt), who believes “slavery is an evil that should befall none”. 12 Years A Slave is the deserved frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and it would be impossible to deny McQueen’s film an entire mantelpiece of gold statuettes. Ejiofor breaks our hearts as an honest, decent man, who retains his humanity in the face of unspeakable cruelty. Nyong’o is equally eye-catching in her big screen debut while Fassbender simmers with rage and self-loathing. McQueen’s directorial brio comes to the fore, memorably in a horrific whipping sequence shot in a single take. It’s not a film that demands repeat viewings – like a sledgehammer to the solar plexus, once is enough.
McQueen’s sensitive yet unflinching portrait of suffering will stay with us forever.