As often as we hear of the evils of slave trade, it is truly hard to comprehend millions of people living a life that is so different to that of our own, so many years ago. The depiction of slavery in film has not done much to help us really understand the suffering that slaves endured. Up till now slaves in film have always been portrayed as noble and brave (no doubt in an attempt to show respect), and their slave masters as inhuman and inherently evil. This pantomime has not given us any kind of understanding of slavery, but instead easy catharsis, as our hero always triumphs (at least in some small way) against their slave masters. In truth slaves were ordinary people trapped in an extraordinarily cruel trade. 12 Years a Slave is perhaps the first film to show us exactly that. As a result it is one of the most disturbing films ever made, and also one of the most important.
12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup himself is no hero. He is a flawed man trying to survive through the most extreme of circumstances. The slaves that surround him on his journey are similarly flawed and unique. Some will fight at any cost, some are complicit, some are ruthless survivalists, and others silently endure. The film is like a detailed portrait, the people seem real, the world seems real, and as a result the horrors seem real. This is all thanks to great direction from Steve McQueen, and an amazing cast led by Chitewel Ejiofor who for the longest time has been owed his own leading role such as this, in which he can showcase his considerable talent.
12 Years a Slave never flinches away from depicting the slave trade with all of its evils. There are scenes of rape, murder, intimidation, and most disturbing of all, floggings. One such scene was enough to reduce my showing of the film to an awkward silence permeated by exclamations of protest and some clearly audible sobbing. It is one of the most horrifying experience I personally have ever had at the cinema, and one that I would not like to revisit. It is necessary however that the violence and injustices be depicted with such realism. though it may be distasteful, it must be seen for us to truly comprehend what was happening in that time.
It could be argued that the film is a little long in the tooth and concedes some catharsis to the audience at its conclusion. But ultimately, to tell the tale as it was and in its entirety, it can be argued that these are necessary evils. It is not overstatement to say that 12 Years a Slave is one of the greatest achievements in cinema history, and may well be seen as a milestone for future films. It must be said however that it is an experience I am unlikely to want to endure again any time in the near future.