12 YEARS A SLAVE directed by Steve McQueen (UK/USA, 2013)
The Academy members undoubtedly did the right thing by naming 12 Years A Slave the best picture and, if there was any justice, Steve McQueen would have been awarded an Oscar for best director in place of Alfonso Cuarón. Gravity is a remarkable technical achievement but directing technology is less deserving of a statuette than man management.
McQueen not only gets the best out his actors but he also knows how to pace a movie. The huge temptation in telling Solomon Northup’s story is to revert to Hollywood clichés and crank up the sentimentalism. It is to his credit that he doesn’t milk the emotional content and heroic lines like “I don’t want to survive, I want to live” are few and far between.
In one remarkable scene, Northup is strung up and has to desperately cling on while waiting for ‘the master’ to cut him down. In conventional films there would be dramatic music and close-ups of the man’s life and death struggle. Instead, the camera pulls back so show life going on around him and makes us realise how commonplace such torture was.
Northup (Chiwetel Ejofor) quickly learns that maintaining a low profile and keeping schtum about his education are the only ways to guarantee survival. Patience and will power are the main reasons why he lived to tell his remarkable story.
It is only right, therefore, that the movie never has the quality of an action movie. The power of the drama comes from the systematic abuse and degradation he and his fellow slaves have to endure.
The slave owners justify their crimes against humanity through a selective reading of the bible – quoting scripture to make it seem their sadism was the will of God. William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) had more of a conscience but is no less culpable. Edwin Epps, brilliantly played by Michael Fassbender, presents the true face of the barbarity.
Brad Pitt was instrumental in getting the movie made so you can forgive the fact that his cameo role is the weakest part of the film. His character,Canadian Samuel Bass, may be the voice of reason but the stiffness of Pitt makes him seem like a village idiot who has inadvertantly stumbled on the truth.
At the Oscar ceremony, Steve McQueen reminded the wordwide audience that millions are still living under slavery. The fact that this one man overcame enormous odds has to put into proper context. This was a pyrrhic victory and gives no cause for complacency.
It took many years for slavery in America to be officially abolished but even though the statute books have been amended, institutionalised racism is still prevalent enough to give this story a contemporary edge.