This true story of a free African American kidnapped into slavery was a torturous but excellent couple of hours, surely a certainty in the Oscars for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (an unrepentantly monstrous Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (which could easily go to Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson or Lupita Nyong’o) and at least a candidate for Best Actor and Best Director (for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen respectively), though here it may face serious competition from other corners; I could see both men missing out despite performing brilliantly. In Ejiofor’s case I think this will probably be to Tom Hanks’ performance in Captain Philips, a film (and a leading role) which shares several points of comparison with this one.
If I have the slightest criticism, it relates to the main character’s story. Not in its plotting – his is never less than a fascinating, horrific tale (though there are a few beats that wobble, co-producer Brad Pitt’s wholesome turn causing some eyes to roll, I suspect) – but because the protagonist’s inner journey is effectively set in stone at a very early stage. It is directly articulated by Michael K. Williams (of The Wire fame, though here he is really trotting out his performance from Boardwalk Empire) and what follows is a realisation of the awful truth he predicted. This in no way diminishes what follows, but I would argue that it becomes a story of endurance rather than change – of accepting the necessity of submission in the face of no choice.
That said, in Solomon Northup we have a “passive protagonist” in perhaps the only acceptable sense of the term: a false one. I was moved to tears at the end (not a unique thing for me), but if that came via a flicker of emotional manipulation it was still utterly justified, and played with a brevity and simplicity that maximize its impact. 12 Years a Slave is a masterful piece of work – a very deliberate choice of words on my part. No film is going to truly convey the horrors of slavery to those who have never experienced it, but we can be compelled to undergo a glimpse, to comprehend what was done, and empathise.