Last Night I Watched: 12 Years a Slave

This is not exactly a unique choice for a film recommendation, or a particularly cheery one to boost your spirits during the coronavirus induced lockdown. Yet Steve McQueen’s 2012 work is certainly one of the best films I’ve ever seen. This is not exactly a niche find, or an obscure recommendation, yet my general impression is that this movie remains shockingly unseen, given the flawless execution of filmmaking across the board into one of the most immersive cinematic experiences possible.

The film begins in a happy place, with the central figure, Solomon Northup, living in Washington DC. However, something malevolent looms in the background, and soon the horror of the story begins to play out, as he is wrenched away from his family, and his career as a violinist. The brutality and exploitation that plays out on screen is nothing short of jaw-dropping, it leaves you pleading with the screen to end the suffering of its characters. This is a film that elicits an emotional involvement, an absolute captivation in the struggle of its central character that I can comfortably call unparalleled.

The brutality and exploitation that plays out on screen is nothing short of jaw-dropping, it leaves you pleading with the screen to end the suffering of its characters.

Purely from a technical standpoint, this film is obviously breath-taking. The performances are across-the-board flawless. I would even say that each performance serves as a demonstration of the key themes of the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor seems to capture the injustice of slavery, Lupita Nyong’o’s the pain that it causes, and Michael Fassbender’s the evil that underpins, and prospers within it. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is a similarly staggering technical achievement here; with long takes that linger for so long that you are practically begging for them to end. This seems incredibly fitting giving the subject matter on display. The attempted hanging scene is an obvious example here, the camera holds for an agonisingly long time, as life continues around Solomon, those around him powerless to help. A devastatingly impactful image that lingers in your mind long after the films conclusion. Hans Zimmer’s score is soaring and beautiful, perfectly capturing the horrendous agony, and emotional power of the images playing out on screen.

The attempted hanging scene is an obvious example here, the camera holds for an agonisingly long time, as life continues around Solomon, those around him powerless to help.

It’s a film that I admit, I put off watching for a long time. Largely due to the horrific subject matter, I’d heard about the evil on display, and to be honest, I didn’t want to subject myself to such a ‘depressing’ story. Yet I did not leave this film ‘depressed’, when the credits rolled I found myself  moved in a way that I had never been before by cinema, never before had I found myself so invested in the journey of the central character, all whilst delivering a personal account of the horrors of slavery. Therefore, I can confidently say, that ’12 years a slave’ is perfect, it is simply impossible to find one foot put wrong in the construction and execution of this masterpiece.

Given the extra time on our hands that we all have now, I couldn’t recommend it enough. For whilst its subject matter is bleak, the technical mastery and emotional power of the experience is one which you will never forget.

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