EVEN in recent years, Hollywood has struggled to bring an accurate portrayal of slavery to the big screen.
The problem lies in the fact that these films (including last year’s Lincoln and Django Unchained) mostly centre on sympathetic white characters that do all they can to help enslaved black Americans overcome adversity.
In other words, Hollywood has generally been more devoted to consoling the nation for its shameful past – focusing on a token few who tried to put a stop to slavery – than to confronting the true horrors of its history.
However, with Shame director Steve McQueen at its helm, 12 Years a Slave was never going to shy away from the truth of such a tough, gruelling subject. On the contrary, McQueen’s raw interpretation of events demands that his audience open their eyes to grim realities: that they feel guilt, despair and anger for the sheer injustice of it all.
12 Years is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofer), who lived with his family as a free black man in New York prior to the civil war. After being lured to Washington DC for a supposed business meeting, Solomon is drugged, abducted and wakes to find himself in chains.
With no proof of his status as a free man, he is transported to the Southern state of Georgia and sold into slavery, where he is forced to endure years of cruelty and hard labour.
It’s an incredible story well told by a strong cast, beautiful cinematography and an understated musical score which is never emotionally manipulative – and why would it need to be when the actors’ performances are so powerful?
Whilst the erratic transitions in time (moving between flashbacks of Solomon as a free man to his present situation as a slave) initially seem a little jarring, it soon becomes clear that the unsettling viewing experience this creates is deliberate.
McQueen does very little to sugar-coat the brutality of the masters towards their slaves, particularly the terrifying plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The punishments Epps inflicts on these individuals are inhumane and also make for uncomfortable, tense viewing that leaves the audience desperate to intervene.
But while it may be hard to watch, these are harsh realities that cannot be ignored.
There are certainly lengthy discussions to be had about 12 Years a Slave, an emotional, shocking and unforgettable film that brings long-neglected issues to the screen.
Above all else though, it is a movie about slavery told from the black man’s point-of-view rather than the perspective of a white person – and this alone makes it a revolutionary piece of modern cinema.
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