Tuesday, 14 January 2014

12 Years A Slave Review Catherine Johnson

Chiwetel Ojiofor 
Director Steve McQueen deserves every accolade and more for his adaptation of musician Solomon Northrups' account of kidnap, slavery and brutality in mid 19th Century America.

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
On a more positive note, another Black British director, Amma Asante,  has a historical feature film out later this year. it's called Belle,  based on Dido Belle, the girl in the (credited to)  Zoffany portrait who lived in Londons' Kenwood House with her aristrocratic  family. It looks good too
Still from Belle
 









Catherine Johnsons' latest book is SAWBONES, published by Walker books.

12 comments:

Candy Gourlay said...

Wow Cathy what a great review. I've been hesitating and hesitating because I'm afraid of getting traumatised. I will watch it now. And thanks for that heads up about Belle. Can't wait to see it. Congrats again for writing such a brilliant book in Sawbones.

Catherine Johnson said...

Candy it is So worth it xc

Leslie Wilson said...

I found this review absorbing and thought-provoking;it set off so many trains of thought. I do want to see Belle, btw. Her story is so fascinating, given that her uncle and guardian issued that judgement, albeit reluctantly, that made anti-slavery campaigners believe slavery had been abolished.n It's the reluctance that I find interesting; he was granting to a mixed-race relation the kind of care that was not unusual for an out-of-wedlock offspring - they were often brought up in the family - but for such a one to be mixed-race does stand out. But he was reluctant to pronounce unambiguously in the Somersett case (the issue being, whether a slave could be considered to be legitimately held as a slave in Great Britain itself.) But of course, there were huge commercial pressures on him. Anyway, really interesting to hear about the upcoming film, and a great review. The Italian poster story is shocking, though. Oh, dear.

Leslie Wilson said...

ps: when I saw the film's title, I thought it was about Olaudah Equiano. His story would make a great film, too, wouldn't it?

Ann Turnbull said...

Great review, Catherine. I do want to see this film.

michelle lovric said...

I have been reading about the Somerset case myself this week, and so have been thinking about the film. Your review is very persuasive, Catherine. I was worried about seeing it, but now I feel that I absolutely should and must. and will.

michelle lovric said...

PS Chiwetel Ejiofor was THIS far away from me as Patrice Lumumba in the Young Vic's 'A Season in the Congo' last summer. The stage and the stalls were pretty much interchangeable in that energetic production.

Catherine Johnson said...

Lucky you Michelle!

Elen C said...

I saw it last night. I too was worried (especially as I know someone who had had to leave, she found it so upsetting). But I'm so glad I went. It is so well crafted. When we came out, my partner and I weren't really able to talk much about it (very unusual!). We just came home and sat quietly with each other. It's the kind of film that will stay with you for hours, days, weeks...

firstnightdesign said...

Riveting review for what is clearly a riveting film. Thank you.

Leslie Wilson said...

I think I shall view it on dvd, where it's not SURROUNDING me, and where I can cuddle a dog, and get up and interrupt the thread, that is how I cope with harrowing things...Must check when it will be out.

KingBida said...

wow . shouldn't comment on this one but what a unique story. so do i will watch it. as history is party of my daily route-in now days. www.historicsafaris.co.uk

jm