It’s been almost fifteen years since McQueen won the Turner Prize, famously beating Tracey Emin and her unmade bed to the infamous artistic accolade. At the time the jury commented on the impressive rate of his intellectual and technical development- McQueen had only left Goldsmiths art college five years earlier- and in 12 Years a Slave, the fruits of this rapid maturity are evident. His early ‘shorts’, considered products of the Young British Artist movement, were mainly silent, black-and-white, highly emotive films that lingered on single shots. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen risks these same techniques; allowing his actors the freedom to explore their emotions without resorting to tear-jerking close-ups or quick scene changes. The film is in colour, but the audience is often thrown into darkness, and forced to listen as well as look.
Alongside his collaborative cinematographer Sean Bobbit, McQueen creates an aesthetic that is both gritty and fittingly stark for such an epic narrative. Long shots pause over the brutal treatment of Northup, and demonstrate the same interest in the destruction of the body apparent in Bobbit and McQueen’s two previous films, Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008), both of which were critically acclaimed.
The film’s stand-out performance is from British born Ejiofor, who is an Oscar cert for his portrayal of Northup. Ejiofor’s acting is simple and unaffected, paying proper tribute to an extraordinary historical figure. The talents of this cast (which also includes Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis and an extraordinary performance from Lupita Nyong’o) are outstanding, across the board.
This film has not only had the critics talking, McQueen has sparked international political and social debate. The director has spoken publicly about the lack of attention American slavery receives from Hollywood, stating that the issue was a ‘hole in the canon of cinema’. The fact that he is British born has led to further questions about current racial relations in the American film industry.
12 Years a Slave is one of the most astonishing and politically important films to have been released in the last decade. With an allegedly neutral gaze, it forces the audience to confront their own social history.
To miss it would be to miss not only a brilliant piece of cinema, but also a cultural and political event.
12 Years A Slave is on general release from January 24.
|What||12 Years a Slave|
|Where||Curzon Soho, 99 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 5DY | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Acton Town (underground)|
24 Jan 14 – 24 Mar 14, 12:00 AM