12 Years a Slave : Depicting the human spirit

Director Steve McQueen taps into the subject of slavery from a fresh angle in this epic piece of cinema.

Set in 1841, the film is based on the true of story of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Northup is a free black man living in New York with his wife and two children. He is a carpenter and gifted fiddle player who has the respect of his community.

However, one day he is enticed to join a tour with a circus by two men who appear amazed by his talent. After a night of heavy drinking and merriment with the men, Northup wakes up in a basement chained to the floor and realises that he has been sold into slavery.

The fiddle player is shipped to New Orleans where he is to be given a new identity and is viciously beaten to conceal his identity as a free man. He is purchased by plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a fairly kind master who is impressed by Solomon's intelligence and courteous demeanour.

However, his overseer Tibeats exhibits a strong disdain for Solomon which leaves William with no choice but to sell him on for his own safety. His new master is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cold hearted planter who believes his cruelty towards the slaves is justified by the Bible. Although he has been stripped of who he is, Solomon clenches on to the hope that he will break free from Epps' plantation field and return to his family.

Slavery is a mammoth subject matter to work with and McQueen has tackled it well - he certainly did not hold back. His desire to "tell the truth" is blatant as a few scenes are physically uncomfortable to watch. In stark contrast to this, the film was beautifully shot on real plantations. There is no filter in sight which is considered a trademark feature in films of this nature.

In making this film, McQueen has shone a light on women and their status during this era, an aspect that has often been neglected. Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o made her American film debut in this story as Patsey who bears the brunt of Epps' inhumane acts.

Various elements of human nature is a theme that is threaded through the narrative. Compassion is shown through the character of Ford and heartlessness through Epps. Epps displays an incredible sense of selfishness, he even uses scripture for his own gain. The slaves are not familiar with the Bible and he manipulates passages to make them believe that they are in their rightful place.

The irony is the premise of the Bible is to set people free from bondage.  Scripture says that in the eyes of God, everyone is equal and this truth is brought to Epps by Bass (Brad Pitt), a labourer from Canada and the 'good Samaritan' Northup confides in.

Ejiofor gives an incredibly captivating performance as Northup which could very well grant him an Academy Award nomination. He powerfully depicts the strength of the human spirit and unbreakable hope, a theme that is trumpeted in this story. This is further supported by the film's score. The slaves sing in the fields to keep their spirits up, which speaks volumes about the relationship between the human spirit and singing.

After an indulgent festive season, this sobering film about the heights of human cruelty and the strength of the human spirit is well worth seeing. 

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