It was up against some deservedly nominated contenders, but I suspect there are not many people who wouldn’t agree that this year they got it right, in the process making cinematic history. 12 Years a Slave, a passionate, heart-rending true story of a free man’s abduction into slavery, walked away with best film trophy at the EE British Academy Film Awards. The first black filmmaker to win the best film Bafta, Londoner Steve McQueen’s response to which was, “Faith, never give up …,” a poignant statement when imagining a soul stripped bare of everything that makes him a man, including his faith in mankind.
Set in 1841 and based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup written after his eventual return to his wife and now grown children, 12 Years A Slave follows the story of an educated man, a carpenter and a talented musician much in demand at society functions, who is abducted (a shockingly common occurrence) and taken from his comfortable, if not luxurious, life in New York, horsewhipped and paddle-beaten until he accepts he has no identity other than that newly bestowed on him, and then shipped off and sold into slavery in the south.
Witnessing horrors beyond our ability to conceive: brutal beatings, children torn from their mothers, ‘Platt’, as he is now called, becomes the property of plantation owner Ford, played believably by Benedict Cumberbatch. We have a seed of hope here, Ford is sympathetic to the plight of his slaves, aware of their humanity, but he is nevertheless a slaver, ergo slave to his own social constraints and beliefs. Winning Ford’s favour, his obvious intellect above that a slave should possess – and indeed should dare to boast for fear of evoking suspicions of aspirations beyond his non-human status, Platt incurs the wrath of a sadistic overseer, is sold downriver, and is now owned by Edwin Epps (Micheal Fassbender), an alcohol abuser and sexual abuser of adolescent females, his uncontrollable desires driving him to self-loathing and inevitable floggings of his ‘temptress’, Patsey (a deeply affecting role played by Lupita Nyong’o).
The real danger to Platt, however, is Epps’ wife. Aware of her husband’s ‘deviant’ lust for young female slaves, frustrated, humiliated, and furious, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) wants blood, facilitated by the flesh stripped from the back of the source of her humiliation. Revealing to Mistress Epps, who would have her ‘niggers sing for their supper’ and be grateful, that he is a man of knowledge, capable of plotting and conspiring against her, would be for Platt to sign his own death warrant.
The key to Platt’s survival is suppression of the rage broiling inside him. He must feign ignorance and total subservience in order to survive. We, the viewer, pray he can hold on to some vestige of hope, whilst knowing that we ourselves could never do so in such appallingly cruel circumstances.
For me, this film ranked alongside Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in terms of its most powerful message. It’s a stark reminder of mans inhumanity to man, a credit to its director, whose characters are portrayed honestly, evenly and with conviction; and, of course, to Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose performance was nothing short of magnificent). Simply, a must see.
John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt (and many more superb actors)
Drama, history, biography