12 Years a Slave comes to Berlin cinemas on January 16.
McQueen’s long-awaited slavery drama has navigated a mist of eye-watering hype to emphatically deliver. Based on Solomon Northup’s book, his film is as marvellous, harrowing and brutal an exercise in cinema as you are likely to see.
We’re in Saratoga in 1841. Northup, a respected musician played with downcast dignity by Ejiofor, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup first crosses paths with a half-decent slaver named William Ford (Cumberbatch) before his terrifying odyssey leaves him in the hands of Edward Epps (Fassbender), a vicious cotton farmer with repressed feelings for a female slave. Northup must struggle to survive this man in order to truly ‘live’ again.
So would this British video art director be marginalised by such sweeping moves on Hollywood? It would seem not. Hans Zimmer might know when to kick in the string section, but the brutish composer is just a deft with a drill and Sean Bobbitt’s photography has lost none of its poetic hostility. Indeed, McQueen may have his sights on LA but his eyelashes have yet to flutter.
With 12 Years he shows us the fear and hatred which governed these peoples’ lives in a way most American filmmakers have yet to muster.
12 Years a Slave | Directed by Steve McQueen (USA, 2013) with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch. Starts Jan 16
Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.