12 Years a Slave is an exquisitely constructed film, with the beauty of the visuals in stark contrast with the unflinching brutality of the action. The ugliness of the violence that is unthinkingly meted out is more than matched by the ugly character of many of the white southerners whom Northup encounters. Absolutely appropriately, no punches are pulled in depicting the hideous inhumanity of the slave owners; there are no laughs to be found here a la Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy.
An impressive cast fill out supporting roles both small and large, including the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt. Director Steve McQueen’s regular leading man Michael Fassbender is impressively vile as Edwin Epps, a drunken hypocrite who regards his slaves as chattel to be used for labour and for his own perverse amusement when they’re not in the fields. Chiwetel Ejifor is magnificent as Northup, moving from terrified incomprehension about what has happened to him to stoic determination to endure and be reunited with his family.
This magnificent, shocking work is likely to become a sort of reference text about the horrors of one of the darkest chapters in America’s (and by extension the UK’s and others who supported the traffic in humans) history.