It is an emotionally harrowing film, but beautiful too and McQueen makes every minute count, which is saying something from me who likes her films 90 minutes and no longer, thank you very much. 12 Years comes in a little over two hours but I didn't notice at all.
To be frank I wasn't looking forward to it. I still have nightmares about an American TV programme those name I can't remember (not Roots) in which Cicely Tyson plays a woman in the 1950s looking back on her life as a slave. And I hate seeing violence - honestly, even if I can write it - and only the thought that at least for Solomon there was a way out of hell kept me going.
The storytelling is intensely visual, loads of scenes without dialogue, and McQueen frames each shot with an artists' eye. Often the point of view is low, often the image is dark or cropped. The landscape of the deep south is lush but horrible, there is no escape, no route out. And most shockingly of all McQueen holds the shot when we think we have had enough. He lingers on faces, on reactions for a long time. He forces us to look at humiliation, and shame, and frustration. Where another director would have cut, McQueen keeps the scene rolling, this life is relentless, brutal and he will make us look.The cast iron narrative of the story may be cut about with flashbacks but is never, ever lost.
To be a slave is never to know where the next injustice is coming from, whether it's a whipping or to be forced to dance in your nightclothes for the entertainment of your owners. It is above all to be reminded that you are property. You have no name - at least not your own name - you have no rights. You are an animal, a chattel, your children will be sold away from you and as your mistress reminds you, you will soon forget them. The anger and frustration Northrup lets out during a grave side spiritual is only one of many truly heart breaking moments.
This was the first film I've seen this year and I think it will be hard to beat. Emotionally, visually, a pitch perfect piece of work. The performances, including Ejiofor, and an Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong'o, were brilliant. Steve McQueen has made, I think, a masterpiece.
A sad little epilogue, while I was looking for stills to add, I found that in Italy the film's distributors' had used posters for the film showing only the white actors, they only changed tack after a protest was staged by Ejiofor and Nyong'o who boycotted an Italian film festival screening. How sad is that. How little has been learnt.
|Dido Belle and her sister Lady Elizabeth|
|Still from Belle|
Catherine Johnsons' latest book is SAWBONES, published by Walker books.