“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
No list compiling the best films of 2014, or indeed this century, could fail to mention the staggering cinematic achievement that is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Based on the real-life memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free man turned slave and back again, 12 Years a Slave is a brutal and unflinching portrayal of the darkest period of American history. The film is not only a potent example of incredible filmmaking, but it stands as an essential piece of important cultural viewing. Nearly a year down the line from its near-unstoppable run as an awards juggernaut of early 2014, it remains a compelling and essential film.
Coming off the back of Shame, his excellent but little-seen 2011 drama about a sex addict living in Manhattan, director Steve McQueen decided the time was right for the wheels to start turning on his long-gestating project about the slave era in America. Having met screenwriter John Ridley at a screening for Hunger (McQueen’s first feature) in 2008 and read Northup’s memoirs not long after, McQueen got Brad Pitt’s production company (Plan B Entertainment) on board and from there the project was creatively and financially ready to go. Pitt and McQueen (who also produced) immediately set about assembling a team of world-leading talents to join them.
Their efforts were justly rewarded. Every single member of this cast and crew shine, with the former excelling with grace, power and emotion. Michael Fassbender’s terrifying and nuanced performance as cruel slaveowner Master Epps lives long in the memory, and Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Patsey, a broken and conflicted lifelong slave, is sensational. Amid the buzz and hype of an awards-season crush, the true quality of a performance can be blurred and obscured. Thus, it’s a necessity that people bear in mind the calibre of acting attained by Nyongo’o. Smaller roles are filled memorably by Benedict Cumberbatch as a “kindly” slave owner, Paul Dano as a cowardly and odious carpenter, and Paul Giamatti, who drips with malice as a despicable trader. Barring a distracting and near diegesis-shattering late cameo from producer Pitt, the casting is totally on point.
However, the film’s crowning glory goes to Chiwetel Ejiofor. One of Britain’s continual “up and comers” for the last decade or so, the actor finally gets his huge break here with a part he was seemingly born to play. Ejiofor pours his heart and soul into his physically and emotionally demanding portrayal of Northup to deliver a towering lead performance. By attempting to depict the suffering of millions through the face of one man, Ejiofor gives the transcendental performance of a lifetime.
It is not purely through the raw power of the acting that 12 Years succeeds so strongly; it is technically astounding on nearly every level. For this film McQueen’s craft, mastered in Hunger and Shame, renders scenes simultaneously unwatchable and unmissable. Most prominent among these is the brutal yet virtuosic centrepiece of the film, a one-take scene in which Northup is forced by Master Epps to whip his fellow slave Patsey. McQueen’s ‘unblinking eye’ forces us into close proximity, and possibly complicity, with that cruel and uncompromising act for far longer than any other director would dare. McQueen’s remit is to present the unflinching truth and horror of the time, with no room for censorship, omission or care for audience needs.
12 Years‘ legacy and its impact on cinematic history cannot be understated. As a film, it boldly confronts America’s history of slavery head on in a way not seen before in Hollywood – it is open, aggressive and totally unapologetic for its depictions of human horror. Years down the line, this will be the film that people talk about with regards to the subject – it has done for slavery what Gone with the Wind did for romance, what 2001 did for space travel, and what Apocalypse Now did for war. With regards to cinema dealing with real historical issues, 12 Years is a complete game-changer. The fact that it took until 2014 for a film to deal with slavery so maturely and honestly is remarkable, as Brad Pitt noted:
“Steve [McQueen] was the first to ask the big question, ‘why [have] there not been more films on the American history of slavery?’ And it was the big question it took a Brit to ask.”
Tarantino used the same period of history as a setting a year prior in Django Unchained – but slavery was not the focal point of the film, rather the backdrop for a fable of one man’s redemption and quest for justice. 12 Years also succeeds on that level, as within its epic scope and its handling of serious issues its core contains a powerful tale of the strength of human spirit and the will for freedom. It is back to this intimate level that the film returns at its heartbreaking and cathartic denouement, as Northup tells his family:
“I apologise for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
That 12 Years a Slave turned out to be 2014’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars came as no surprise – it is one of those rare films that manages to combine what may seem from the outset to be “Oscar-bait-y” elements (i.e. an epic, historical film about an “issue”) with great talent, genuine artistry, and a mature and serious handling of its subject matter. It is by no means an easy watch – the silent, several-minute-long shots will have produced tears, walkouts and heartbreak for audiences around the world. Amazingly, the film’s win marks the first time a black filmmaker has won the Oscar for Best Picture – a feat which, with his extreme versatility as a director and great gift as a storyteller, McQueen will no doubt be repeating.
12 Years a Slave is the closest cinema has come to being culturally essential viewing in the 21st century.
One Room With A View’s Top 20 of 2014 (so far):
20 = X-Men: Days of Future Past
20 = Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
19. The LEGO Movie
17. 22 Jump Street
16. The Wind Rises
15. Mr Turner
13. Starred Up
12 = The Raid 2
12 = Nightcrawler
11. Dallas Buyers Club
10. Gone Girl
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. The Wolf Of Wall Street
4. Under The Skin
3. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Stay tuned as we count down to our Number One film of 2014. Revealed December 30th.