“12 Years a Slave”, or “Tears, All the Tears” By Caitlin McGrane

Posted on February 10, 2014


Writing this is the second thing that I have done since returning home from seeing 12 Years a Slave. The first was to make an enormous G&T with the flat tonic water. Desperate times, readers, desperate times.

First of all, fuck you Quentin “I’m shutting your butt down” Tarantino, this is how you talk about slavery. Django was not without merit, but it did not explore the unending pain that slavery caused, or the raw emotional wounds that have stayed through generations. In an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4, Tarantino argued that no one was talking about slavery in the way that he was; director Steve McQueen has more than proven him wrong.

The film opens as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is chopping sugar cane on a nameless plantation, one of many hundreds across America in the mid-nineteenth century. McQueen has an Hitchcockian way of manipulating tension, for example, in the opening the way that the camera weaves through the sugar cane to find the slaves and their captors immediately puts the viewer on edge.


Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup

Solomon’s manipulation into slavery is told through flashback, which is skilfully employed to reveal that the opening scene is quite a way through Solomon’s slave journey. His former life is rather idyllic; he is a musician living in Saratoga, New York. After being sold into slavery he is immediately told that he must keep his education a secret, lest he risk his life. Once in the south, he is owned by two different slave masters – William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Both ostensibly Christian men, they justify their ownership of slaves through their religion. The Ford is relatively benevolent and the Epps a total psychopath. Epps takes a lustful and degrading shine to one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), which provides some of the hardest scenes to watch in the film. At least one person walked out of the screening I was in.

Every performance in this film is utterly tremendous. Y’all know how much I love Fassbender and in this role I found him suitably repulsive, yet also completely captivating. Cumberbatch meanwhile is a commanding and engaging screen presence, bringing nuance to an undoubtedly challenging role.

However, regardless of these supporting performances, the standouts of this film have to be Ejiofor and Nyong’o. They steal every goddamn scene. I believed every second of their relationship on screen. If Nyong’o doesn’t win an Oscar for this, I will burn the Academy to the ground. Patsey is a heartbreaking character and I cried throughout the last half hour. An honourable mention must also go to Brad Pitt for Bass, who doesn’t chew the scenery, and therefore a more benign screen-presence.

As the credits rolled I let myself cry for Solomon, cry for Patsey and for the rest of the nameless slaves throughout the film. This film broke my heart and I had a hard time keeping it together walking home. Go and see it, and let’s hope we see much more of this calibre film and much less of Jordan Belfort and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Caitlin McGrane is You’re Dripping Egg’s resident film reviewer with her column, Here. Hare. Here.