I’ve developed an detestable habit – If a film is based on a book, I have to read the book first. I used to laugh at people like that. That is why it took me so long to get round to watching 12 Years a Slave.
It also took me a long time to read the book because, quite frankly, it was a difficult read – linguistically and when it came to the narrative. The story is as horrific as they come and the writing style didn’t make the experience easier. I also had a surprising reaction to the narrator, Solomon Northup – I found him to be a cold and at times selfish man. Now I understand how utterly bizarre this might sound, especially considering the nightmarish situation Northup found himself in, but I never once found myself thinking that Northup was a good man. To be fair, there is a shortage of good people in this sorry tale.
Anyway, I found Northup’s account to be a very hard, cold and inhuman read – but I guess that is the point. The slave trade robbed a whole people of their humanity, spirit and dignity to such a large extent that people are still feeling the effects today.
What I found most surprising about Steve McQueen’s film is how much of a different experience it was compared to the book. Although the sheer horror of the situation Solomon Northup found himself in is still present throughout – the film gives off a sense of warmth and hope which is missing in Northup’s original book.
I felt that instead of being just a study of the inhumane system of slavery, the film was also a study in the strength of Solomon’s spirit and will. The film made me see Northup’s story in a completely different light. While in the book I viewed Northup as cold, disinterested in other slave’s plight to the point that he viewed himself as better than most of his fellow slaves, in the film he appeared more nuanced. In the film, Northup seemed to be in perpetual shock and disbelief at his situation and was ultimately as powerless and as desperate as his fellow slaves. This side of his character is something I totally missed from the book.
I did have some gripes with McQueens film – for me it felt rushed. I don’t mean in terms of running time. At over 2 hours, the film was long enough but it also felt that it was rushing through the key moments of Northup’s story.
For instance, they should have spent more time telling the story of his life before slavery and the time he spends living in the dingy den in Washington D.C. I found those moments in D.C the most distressing. I have no idea how I would have reacted and unfortunately you don’t get any impression of how Northup coped. This was a massive missed opportunity.
But honestly, I am reaching even with that gripe.
Simply put, 12 Years a Slave is a beautiful and important film. It’s also worth mentioning that the cast is fantastic – not just Chiwetel Ejiofor. Michael Fassbender is disgustingly brilliant as the slaver Epps but it is Lupita Nyong’o who steals the whole damn show. Lupita deserved every single bit of praise she received, she is completely stunning as the tragic but beautiful Patsey. She stole my heart… and then broke it.
I struggle to think of a more beautifully shot film than this – Steve McQueen was robbed at the Oscars and I don’t care how groundbreaking Gravity was. McQueen is now probably biting at Christopher Nolan’s heels as the most talented British director of his generation.
I do recommend that everyone sees this film at least the once. I have no doubt that I will re-watch it numerous times in the future but I don’t blame those who can never stomach watching this film ever again.