12 Years a Slave (2013) – Steve McQueen

What kind of species are we that we can enslave our fellows?

There are two scenes in McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave, that shook me to my core. The first was a scene in which Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is left to hang, while life goes on around him, and another when Solomon is forced to whip another slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave comes up as the next title on the What Else to Watch list as I work my way through DK Canada’s The Movie Book. Coming as a recommendation following a screening of Gone With the Wind, this Oscar winning film is a stunning, hear-wrenching experience that allows Ejiofor a tour de force performance, and casts an unflinching eye on a terrifying reality that isn’t as far distant as some would have us believe.

Garnering well-deserved accolades, the film walked home with three Oscars, Best Picture (honestly it should have taken director as well, not to mention actor), Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Nyong’o.

The story follows Solomon, a free man residing in New York, who is kidnapped and taken south, where he is sold into slavery.

Through the course of the film we see a man whose life is whittled away before his eyes; his family is taken, his name is taken, he loses everything perhaps even hope, his back bent under incredible labour.

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The film is an deserved indictment for behaviours and actions that shock and horrify me to think that they existed, and terrifyingly still exist.

McQueen does some very smart casting in the roles of the slavers. Yes, he goes with solid actors, in fact there isn’t a bad performance in the entire film, but in casting the role of white land and slave owners, he went with familiar faces, actors who are known and well-liked for roles completely different to those we see them in here.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, all recognisable faces, meant to remind us that our friends, our neighbours, our kin, they were involved, and the occasional perceived kind gesture to their ‘property’ does not make them better people. This casting was done to make us realise that these people could have been us.

The film is riveting, and is raw in its experience. It’s an absolutely captivating to watch. As Solomon wrestles with his life, his fate, there is a moment where he looks right into the camera, and we see the pain and suffering in his eyes. This look is echoed by a verbal plea that Patsey makes to Solomon that is absolutely heart wrenching.

Powerful, amazing, and important, 12 Years a Slave is a must see. And this title, and others can be found in DK Books’ brilliant The Movie Book. Pick one up and see that cinema doesn’t just have to entertain, it can inform, shape, and change you.

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