Steve McQueen is obsessed with startling… visuals, the kind that grab an audience and rarely let go. His first historical film detailed with nauseating frankness the hunger strike of IRA dissident, Bobby Sands. In his latest effort, 12 Years a Slave, McQueen brings to the screen the brutal captivity of freeman Solomon Northup. Based on Northup’s memoir of the same name, McQueen’s interpretation is far too concerned with shock value to capture the deeper messages of Northup’s writing. John Ridley’s conscientious script is at times sacrificed to the director’s need to visualize brutality even his subject could not describe.
Historians have been divided over... the academy award winning film. John Ridley’s script faithfully follows Northup’s memoir but McQueen wastes little time extrapolating the narrative with visceral images designed to enlighten, but often deliver little more than wincing. Events Northup leaves to the readers’ imaginations, McQueen brutally visualizes- primarily the whipping of Patsey. McQueen was more than willing to leave Northup’s story to show a fictional murder aboard a slave ship, again for effect, rather than plot. What saves the film from being a bloody mess are the performances. Much attention was awarded to Lupita Nyong’o for her harrowing portrayal of Patsey- but Chiwetel Ejiofor is a revelation as Northup; haunting and tragic, his performance is the real soul of the film.
Scenery, dialect, and costuming were …all well researched- this is not the glorified plantation living of Gone With the Wind, rather a dank, crumbling, stagnate world teetering on the edge of collapse. Michael Fassbender’s psychotic turn as Edwin Epps is symbolic of the self destructive nature of chattel slavery. Many critics cite McQueen’s ambivalence to religion as a weakness in the script- Northup spoke strongly of faith as well as the good Christian nature of his first master, William Ford(an understated Benedict Cumberbatch.) Strong performances, gritty scenery and cinematography, and a historically accurate script make 12 Years a Slave a must see experience. The film’s horrific depictions of violence are considered necessary by some, will be lamented by all- one has to consider whether McQueen could have told the story without as many scare tactics.