19 January 2014 | rogerdarlington
A very special piece of film making
Let's be honest about it: this spotlight on the darkest days of American history is a particularly British triumph. The brilliant director (and artist) Steve McQueen and outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the eponymous Solomon Northup, are both British; even Michael Fassbender, in the main support role as a sadistically brutal slave-owner, is half British; and Benedict Cumberbatch makes an appearance as a 'kinder' slave owner.
But, of course, there is a vast array of American talent here too. As always, Sean Bobbitt is inspiring as director of photography, making full use of the Louisiana locations. And a host of fine US actors make cameo appearances, notably Brad Pitt (who was one of the 10 producers), Paul Giamatti (looking as if he had walked straight out of the TV mini series "John Adams"), Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard. In her first film role, Lupita Nyong'o gives a heart-rending performance as a young slave who is horrendously abused. Original music by Hans Zimmer and use of contemporary songs add to the searing atmosphere of the work
McQueen is unrelenting in his focus: except for short pieces at the beginning and the end of the film, all the time is the period in captivity and, except for occasional glimpses of humanity, we see the slaves subjected to humiliation and horror again and again and again. McQueen's style is slow and penetrating with some long and wordless scenes totally captivating.
As a piece of social history, this movie is simply stunning - a virtual blow to the solar plexus. As a cinematic work, it has some challenges: there is no conventional narrative arc in which a plot unfolds or a character develops because Northrup is confined to a small geographical space where he can only survive by keeping as low a profile as possible; the characters are literally black and white with little subtlety or nuance; and there is not really a sense that the period of incarceration is more than a decade.
At the start and finish of the film, we are reminded that this is a true story based on the book written by Northup in 1853, once he finally re-acquired his freedom (in a pedestrian act of bureaucracy rather than anything more dramatic or violent). As if Northup has not suffered enough, we learn that his legal actions against both those who sold and bought him failed in the courts. A special award should go to McQueen's Dutch partner Bianca Stigter who discovered Northup's book and recommended it to the director.