Frances Winston found this film to be one of McQueen’s most profound works yet
Directed by: Steve McQueen – Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard
Steve McQueen’s work is known for being thought-provoking, and this adaptation of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped into slavery in 1841, is probably one of his most profound works yet.
Northup (played brilliantly here by Ejiofor) was born a free man, and made a living as a carpenter and musician. However in 1841 under the promise of work, he accompanied two men to Washington where he found himself drugged and chained up, before being renamed Platt and sold at auction.
His first master Ford (Cumberbatch) is a benevolent man who appreciates Northup’s work and efforts on his behalf. However, he does not fare so well with later masters, particularly Edwin Epps (Fassbender) and finds himself whipped, beaten and dehumanised on a daily basis. At one point he is almost lynched. Despite being educated, he is also forced to sit idly by while other slaves, particularly the females, are abused.
Aware that he will be killed if he protests, he resigns himself to his fate, until he encounters an itinerant carpenter called Bass (Pitt) who is vocal about his opposition to slavery. Realising that this could be an opportunity to regain his freedom, Northup implores him to get letters to his friends in New York. Despite great personal risk to himself, Bass fulfils the request.
Northup was one of only a few kidnapped free black men ever to regain their freedom, and this movie is named after the account he wrote of his time in captivity. Even allowing for necessary artistic licence to move the plot along, this is a difficult watch from the beginning, as even when you see him with his family, you know what is coming. This is not a sentimental tale, but a story of endurance. To watch the treatment meted out to the slaves by their owners is horrific, and draws parallels with what we know of the Nazi’s and their treatment of those they felt were inferior to them.
Ejiofor is brilliant as Northup, and manages to convey the internal agony and loneliness of the character, as he struggles to accept his fate. Fassbender is truly sadistic as Epps, and Sarah Paulson is fantastic as his wife, who despises her husband’s dalliances with his favourite female slave. Everybody here does justice to the powerful material which can’t have been easy – particularly for those playing more unsavoury characters. McQueen’s direction ensures that this is well paced, and he manages to build a truly atmospheric movie, which is difficult when viewers already know the outcome.
This is a difficult watch, and at times is actually traumatic. However, these kinds of stories need to be told, and here it is handled sensitively without descending into schmaltz. The fact that this is based on Northup’s own account, rather than something written by a researcher a hundred years after his death, makes this all the more poignant. Not an easy watch, but this is the kind of film that makes you grateful for what you have and value life all the more.
In cinemas now!