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12 January 2014

Song of Solomon

After a slow start for new cinema releases, 2014 is getting back on track as the countdown to the Oscars begins. Today I went to see Steve McQueen's excellent new film 12 Years a Slave, which surely has numerous Academy Award nominations in the bag.

The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, which tells the story of how Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in Upstate New York in the 1840s, is seduced by a job offer in Washington DC and then kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup is a talented musician with a beloved wife (Kelsey Scott) and two young children. But after he travels to Washington with two men who have promised him a gig with a travelling circus, he wakes up to find himself chained and locked in a prison cell, with only hazy memories of the night before. It is heartbreaking to watch as the guards refuse to accept his explanation that he is a free man from New York, and tell him that he is really a runaway slave from Georgia.

He is bought by the relatively benevolent plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a baptist minister who tries to treat his slaves fairly. "He's a decent man," Solomon says. "Under the circumstances." Although Solomon has a good relationship with Ford, he constantly faces criticism and abuse from Ford's overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and eventually, in order to "protect" Solomon, Ford sells him on to another master — the only one who will take him, his literacy and musical talent making many other would-be masters wary of him. Edwin Epps (a scarily sociopathic Michael Fassbender) is a whole different breed. He whips his slaves every day if they don't meet the impossibly high cotton quotas he sets for them and he sexually abuses one of the young female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), whom he also uses as a pawn to taunt his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson).

All the while, Solomon keeps thinking of his family and the life he once had. He tries to stay optimistic, even in the face of hopelessness. "You let yourself be overcome by sorrow and you will drown in it," he says. But will he ever be able to overcome the odds and find his way back to his family and safety? Well, given the title of the film and that it is based on a memoir, the eventual outcome is hardly a surprise, but that doesn't make McQueen's movie any less harrowing. And it is a hard watch. There are many scenes with graphic depictions of slaves being whipped and beaten and every small chance Solomon has of being rescued seems to be crushed. The hazy Georgia landscapes are peppered with red — sunsets, paddle steamer wheels, blood — and the score is by turns haunting and melancholic, and uncomfortable.

Ejiofor's performance is outstanding: his character is powerfully sympathetic, even at his most understated, and he makes it hard for you to take your eyes from the screen, even for a moment. Fassbender doesn't shy away from playing such a horrible person as the sadistic Epps. When faced with a blight affecting his cotton, he asks, "What I done that God hates me so?" We, of course, have just seen only a fraction of the terrible things he has done and yet he has no idea; we also see how weak he really is and how this motivates his cruelty. 12 Years a Slave is a compelling, important and beautifully told story of human strength and weakness. It is moving and engaging, and well worth a trip to the cinema.


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