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Film: 12 Years A Slave [15]

Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave is a triumph - of style over substance, says JEFF SAWTELL

12 Years A Slave [15]

Directed by Steve McQueen

3 Stars

Turner prize-winning artist turned film-maker Steve McQueen has made two controversial films - Hunger and Shame - which were both criticised for sacrificing reality for aesthetic effect.

Hunger deified the Irish republican Bobby Sands - the "dirty" protest being pictured as an abstract expressionist performance painting - while Shame, supposedly about the the highs and lows of a so-called sex addict, never reached into the sweaty depths, always skimming the surface like a glossy magazine.

In 12 Years A Slave McQueen attempts realism yet still draws on a painterly sensitivity that aestheticises the agony and savagery of slavery.

It certainly avoids anything as controversial as Tarantino's Django Unchained, especially its exonerating the idea of revenge against those uttering the N word.

McQueen claims that while he was thinking about the themes of the film, his wife pointed out Solomon Northup's book Twelve Years As A Slave, written in 1853, as a valuable source.

It's hard to see why it should have been a surprise, since there was a film version made by Gordon Parks - of Shaft renown - in 1985 titled Solomon Northup's Odyssey. Although thousands of slaves revolted, it was an autobiographical account which, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), was used by abolitionists to propagate their cause.

The film's opening shot of a group of slaves morphs into Northup and his wife and children shopping in a New York which seems, surreally, devoid of racism.

An educated engineer who played the fiddle, Northup is persuaded by two chancers to join their circus in Washington, only to wake up in chains. It seems that when the slave trade from Africa was losing support, there was profit in kidnapping African-Americans from the north and selling them in the south.

McQueen concentrates on Northup being resented by his southern brethren, since he's clearly not one of them.

This is also true of his owners, from the brutal (Paul Giamatti) to the benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a sadistic bastard (Michael Fassbender) who's doing God's work.

Naturally, the English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup is excellent in his portrayal of the educated foreigner and it's this central class contradiction that provides the motive force for the film as Northup decides, after seeing the result of resistance, that only the smart survive.

Whereas in Django Unchained you cheer when the racists get shot, here you might wince. Solomon is humiliated and brutalised, even agreeing under duress to whip a woman slave and there are constant reminders of his precarious position, as when he avoids a lynching. There's even a rape scene toned down for US distribution so the film gets a 15 certificate, an edit that signifies a compromise to censorship.

Northup spends 12 years surviving, making no attempt to run for the north, his fortunes only seeming to be on the change when a civilised Canadian (Brad Pitt) turns up.

Apart from Northup's attitude - much more compliant than even the stereotypical Uncle Tom - it's a fact the scenes of atrocity are diminished through repetition.

And while the film has star quality, from performance to photography, its weakness is its lack of courage in confronting a grotesque reality.

When are we going to see Hollywood deal significantly with slave revolts? Its last film of any substance on the subject was Spartacus, which incidentally was an attack on McCarthyism.

If you want inspiration try looking directly south towards Gillo Pontecorvo's Queimada, about the slave revolt in a fictional Caribbean island that resembles Cuba.

McQueen's work will no doubt be up for an Oscar, supported by backers of President Obama - the recumbent "liberal" who presides over Guantanamo.

If that happens, they'll be ignoring the fact that even Huckleberry Finn had more guts than Northup in saving Old Jim, despite having been told he'd end up in hell if he did so.

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