Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

   Hope is the rare flower which blossoms in dead earth.

   Critics of Steve McQueen's latest feature, Twelve Years a Slave, have labelled the movie as nothing but a lavish exercise in "Torture porn" - a film genre which exist solely for the purpose of showcasing human suffering, sorry and pity.

   This reading is only valid if the BAFTA award winning feature is approached with blinkered confirmation bias as, after excruciating scenes of bruatlity and inhumanity, McQueen bares his movies' heart with one of the most bravura sequences of modern cinema - a camera lingers on the face of Chiwetel Ejiofor, portraying Solomon Northup, as a cast of slaves mourn a death, spiritually singing a beautiful rendition of "Roll Jordan Roll".

   During this performance, the camera, which has never flinched from showing us the ugly brutality and wanton violence of the slave industry, remains static as we view the world alive in Northup's eyes - the fear, the misery and, ultimately as a voice swells up inside of him, the hope which he will never allow to be extinguished. We realise that it takes a brave man to stoically and subserviently endure what was inflicted upon Northup for so long - when faced with death, and an instant end to his misery, or a daily fight to survive, for the near impossible chance of ever finding escape, Northup finds a superhuman resolve to keep the flicker of hope alive in his soul. As Joan of Arc prays for the salvation of delivery to the clement embrace of her Lord, Northup too prays his inhuman abuse will end with a return to the ones he loves.

   It is this element which, fuelled by a spectacularly emotive central performance by Ejiofor, gives McQueen's film its power, its purpose. The title alone, Twelve Years a Slave, gives the audience some clue as to what the movie will be about plot-wise - Northup, a free man, is kidnapped and forced into shackles from which we are forced to view the bestial nature of slavery, the animal savagery it can inspire in slave-owners and the destruction it can wrought in a being. Yet, the strength of the film, and the elements which make it so admirable, come from its personal study of resilience and the often unorthodox angle it approaches the broad and weighty topic with in order to find the humanity within. During one sterling sequence, Northup is hung by a noose from a tree, toes battling to touch the ground and prevent asphyxiation, whilst the life and daily toil of plantation work continues laconically around him - McQueen presents us with the banality of evil in animated prose.

   Those who celebrate Twelve Years a Slave wish to do so for McQueen's exploration of one of modern civilisation's greatest shames. Whilst it is true the British director does indeed highlight the ugliness upon which our society was built, his great achievement comes, however, with shining a light on the other end of the spectrum and uncovering the miraculous manner in which we cultivate hope in soils where nothing should grow.


  1. Wow - fantastic review as always Keiron! This is on my 'to watch' list before the Oscars in a few weeks. Have been putting it off purely because I know how upsetting it will be, but have heard it's exceptionally well done.

    Eve x
    Sugar Spun Sisters - A blog about cosmetics, clothes & coeliac disease

    Reply Delete
    1. Thanks Eve!
      It is a tough watch indeed, but recommended.


© The Totality | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig