12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

What's it about? Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York State in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. As you might expect, it's not a nice experience.

Is it any good? Very good. It's won't be for everyone and is tough watch for sure (should it be anything less?), but it is a rewarding one. The uncomfortable nature of the viewing is perhaps because Hollywood has studiously avoided tackling the topic of American slavery in the serious, unflinching manner that McQueen does. As such, he fashions some horrible moments, and beautiful ones, and beautifully horrible ones throughout as he tells Solomon's story. Having said that, there's still a slightly detached element to his artistry, so this doesn't quite sear the soul as it might have - I was moved, but not devastatingly so. However, it is more affecting than his previous two films, thanks in part to immaculate performances. Ejiofor conveys a host of emotions, often without speaking, as he realises there will be no great escape from his plight. As fellow slave Patsy, Lupita Nyong'o does good work with a slightly written character and provides the most distressing scenes in the movie - prepare to wince. But it's Michael Fassbender as the brutal plantation owner Epps that sticks long in the memory, with some unbearably tense scenes as we wait to see what his unpredictable character will do. So that's all good, but there's still some minor missteps in the film. One could argue that most of the white characters are merely caricatures representing the racist spectrum from casual (Paul Giamatti) to abusive (Paul Dano) to conflicted (Benedict Cumberbatch), whilst Brad Pitt's saviour-like character is a distracting presence near the end. Elsewhere, the slave tableaux in some shots seem a little too deliberately arranged and there's a slightly forced comparison between the beauty of the environment and the ugliness of what's going on within it. But these are minor quibbles. It's not light viewing, but it's an impressive film and would be a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar this year.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Pretty much universal acclaim, a host of awards and nominations and plaudits for McQueen putting slavery in a new light. But not everyone is pleased. Outspoken African-American critic Armond White has picked up on the things others liked and lambasted it as torture porn, placing it alongside the likes of Saw, Hostel and The Human Centipede. Not content with writing that, he progressed to verbally abusing McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony. “You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. F***k you, kiss my ass!” he rather confusingly bellowed, as McQueen made his Best Director acceptance, a move which saw White kicked out of the eminent society. His defense was that he (a) never said that and (b) was talking to others at his table (who presumably didn't mind the abuse). He was drunk and merry from his meal, presumably, but rumours that he awoke in chains in a hovel in New Orleans are unfounded.

What does the Fonz think? Two thumbs a film.

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