Considering the ferocity of Steve McQueen’s small but impressive oeuvre and the subject matter of his latest film, I never expected to be in for an easy ride with 12 Years a Slave but nothing, not the trailer, the word of mouth nor my own imagination could prepare me for both its excellence and the horrors to be found within it. The director’s third feature is based on the memoir of one Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from up-state New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. The film charts the following decade and the unimaginable ordeal that is daily life for a slave.
It’s rare these days that I can report to have sat through a film screening in a packed cinema without seeing at least one or two phones light up in front of me. Talking and popcorn rustling are two other offenders which take one out of a film and back to the annoying reality of the fact that there are other humans around you. Throughout the two and a quarter hours of 12 Years a Slave however I didn’t hear a peep from the audience besides a few sniffles and yelps. The film gripped one and all from its opening frames and touched myself at least (but I suspect most) with a profound sense of heartache, perplexity and dare I say it, guilt.
Following a brief few scenes which outline Solomon’s life as an accomplished and well respected musician, living in middle class surroundings, side by side with blacks and whites, the film takes the turn you know to expect. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt presses his camera uncomfortably close to the actors during these scenes in a trend that continues during Solomon’s kidnapping. The screen becomes claustrophobic and seems to envelop the audience as though we too are being taken against our will. I struggled for breath and my palms were clammy, as they remained so long passed the credits began to roll. The camera is unflinching, not allowing the audience to avert their gaze from both the kidnapping and the horrors that are to follow.