Movie review – The horrors of a man-made slave

2014-01-19 10:00

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Director Steve McQueen creates a pitch perfect tale about what it means to be free, Gayle Edmunds reports on Oscar’s front-runner

Film: 12 Years a Slave (Nu Metro)

Director: Steve McQueen

Featuring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender

Our concept of a hero has been moulded by the Hollywood cliché. He (or occasionally she) takes action, defeats the villain and saves the day (or, increasingly, the universe as we know it). But heroism can take much more subtle forms and Solomon Northup might just be one of the greatest heroes of them all. He survived when it would have been easier to die and didn’t allow despair to take his soul.

Perhaps, most importantly, he came back from the abyss and, 160 years later, still speaks for those whose lives were deemed worthless and whose stories will never be heard.

British director Steve McQueen has brought Northup’s extraordinary story to the screen as a blockbuster. This is not an art house film with a limited audience – it’s a full-blown horror film with action sequences that will make your heart stop.

There are layers and layers of themes and metaphors embedded in McQueen’s depiction of Northup’s odyssey from free man to slave and back to freedom.

But first and foremost, it is a compelling story about the human spirit.

It explores how tenuous our freedom is. After all, slavery might no longer be legal, but it continues worldwide. The film, 12 Years a Slave, asks us to take a long, hard look at who we are, where we come from, what makes us human and what might make us inhuman.

McQueen?–?who made the explicit and painful Shame?–?again holds the camera steadily and unflinchingly as scenes of excruciating pain and despair unfold. Yet he never makes his film unbearable to watch, he just ensures that, at times, the audience knows what it feels like to wear Northup’s shackles.

In this way, McQueen insists the audience champions his hero’s cause, willing him to hold fast.

After seeing the film, I stayed awake long into the night processing the nightmarish images of Eliza, sold at the market separately from her children, who is told by the plantation’s mistress: “Something to eat and some rest, and your children will soon be forgotten.”

I agonised over the plight of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), born a slave and regularly raped by the plantation owner, while his wife physically attacks her in jealous rages.

Northup, a free man kidnapped and made a slave, is impotent to help himself or anyone else. It is more terrifying to watch than any horror film, as he takes tiny chances to move incrementally closer to freedom?– taking a piece of paper or the juice of blackberries – perilous acts in a time and place when the dangers of literacy are well ­understood by sadistic masters with the law on their side.

Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves the ­nominations and accolades he has ­received for this role. It is a difficult one as he is the hero, yet one who must keep his battle internal instead of taking on the villains face to face.

He must exist within himself, creating his own hope in a hopeless place. He has to live with the fact that he can’t help anyone – shortly after his abduction, he watches a slaver lead a woman away to be raped. All he can do is watch.

The same happens with Patsey. Northup is condemned to watch her abuse and despair up close.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Northup’s first owner, a man Northup described as a “good” one, though through our eyes a man who keeps people captive and then preaches religion to them on Sundays might be better described as a sadist who specialises in psychological torture.

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps is the very image of the whip-wielding slave master with a God complex. He is a character so odious and abusive you’d think him a caricature but for the fact that Northup fell under his whip and Patsey was subjected to his perversions.

This film deserves everything it wins, but awards mean little. Rather, I wish it draws capacity audiences at the cinemas. This might be a true ­story about slavery in America more than 150 years ago, but the debate it invites is universal.

Above all, it is about each and every one of us and our right to be masters (and more importantly, in the South African context, mistresses) of our own bodies.

Equality, identity, freedom, hatred and superiority that are based on meaningless differences such as race and gender or sexual choices?– these are all issues we need to revisit constantly no matter the time, place or circumstance.

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