Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Soloman Northup. He is a black musician in 1841 New York and is abducted, enslaved, and labours for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch ) whose sadistic foreman Tibeats (Paul Dano) nearly hangs Northup who is then enslaved by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Can Northup trust first a white worker on the plantation, and then Boss (Brad Pitt) to get his release?
Steve McQueen has looked at the suffering of the tortured body in Hunger, and in this film there is the suffering of the slaves in the antebellum South of the US. Amazingly, this appears to be the first film to look at the full horror of slavery. Gone with the Wind is anodyne fairy tale, Roots was a bland TV product, Django Unchained opted for comedy, and Amistad was all courtroom drama in which white film stars predominated. When Northup is abducted, he’s subjected to a relentless beating as an induction into everyday sadism. The obscenity of this is so suffocatingly fetid, one looks for a hole to breathe through. William Ford is comparatively decent even though a beneficiary of slavery, Tibeats and Epps are simply foul sadists. One starts to think of the Hegelian view of slavery, how it corrupts the enslaver as well as the enslaved, anything to mitigate the horror where the Louisiana swampland is a sealed hell of tropical venom. When we see slaves picking cotton it’s as if the lush appearance of it is mocking us with the promise of a Terence Mallick lyricism, instead there is just the lash and death. Hans Zimmer’s music is like a tension pulled to snapping point. In one scene, Tibeats leaves Northup on tiptoe with a noose around his neck as the life of the plantation goes on unconcernedly around him. McQueen’s camera lingers over this for several long minutes. Ford cuts him (and us) free. There’s another drawn out scene in which Northup just looks out at the surrounding horror, his face registering terrified shock and dismay that never succumbs to despair. Edwin Epps is the distillation of slaver evil: pathologically vindictive. His insane jealousy of the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) leads to the most graphic details of a back wrecked by a whip. Epps’s wife (Sarah Poulson) is insanely envious of Patsey, her cruelty just as unpredictably dangerous as that of Epps because it mostly lacks physical gratification and is more invidious. It’s all like being taken on a concentration camp trip, each atrocity a shocking education. It makes us look at some of those top hatted costume dramas in a different way, anyway it forcefully made me aware that even the recent Willberforce movie recoiled from showing a slave ship on its horrific ocean passage and it would have been better if it had.