The horrors of captivity

A affecting tale with a top-notch cast, writes Aubrey Malone

 12 Years a Slave (12A)
There are so many unspeakable acts of cruelty against black slaves in this powerful movie set in a pre-Civil War America that any tiny smidgeon of kindness enacted by a white ‘master’ resonates hugely.

The tale is based on the true story of a free black man called Solomon Northup who’s duped into travelling from upstate New York to the Deep South under the auspices of securing a music engagement because of his proficiency at fiddle-playing.

He’s then abducted and sold into slavery, along with his wife and children, from whom he’s mercilessly separated in one of the film’s many heart-wrenching scenes.

It’s a gruelling offering that still finds time to give us oases of black pride even in the horrific conditions under which the slaves exist, like for instance when we’re enriched by their singing at the grave of a loved one.


The Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor is captivating as Solomon, conveying both the agony and frustrated longing of a man pitchforked out of his comfortable environment and thrust into the most appalling circumstances imaginable without any apparent recourse to justice.

The slaves’ daily routines are abysmal. Every minor infraction is punished ruthlessly. Faults are found with them on apochryphal grounds for sadistic purposes, or to rise tempers – the search for a bar of soap, a piece of wood that’s not deemed ‘flush’, etc.

Murder is perpetrated without thought. Humiliation is dished out as a matter of course by the thugs who operate the plantations in which the slaves pick cotton, their brief camaraderie with one another scant consolation for their unremitting workloads.


Steve McQueen, sharing his name with the famous actor who died in 1980, directs with an empathetic richness that brings us into his ante-bellum world with pulsating intensity. He refuses to spare us the graphic details of whipping, lynch mobs and a relentless racism from white supremacists that seems to take it as a given that their skin colour entitles them to possess blacks like chattels simply because they’ve paid for them.

Michael Fassbender is suitably venal as one of Solomon’s more vicious masters. An almost unrecognisable Brad Pitt appears in a smaller role as an unlikely conduit to his ultimate freedom.

Solomon wrote about his experiences in a book of the same name as the film. It was published in 1853. Afterwards he became an abolitionist who aided black fugitives. He also became a spokesman on egalitarianism.

His plight here is captured in almost epic form in a film that’s as uplifting in its final stages as it is disturbing in many of the foregoing scenes. I would have thought a 15 cert to be more apt than a 12A considering the violence, and some sexual content.

The performances of the cast are all top-notch but be prepared for some stomach-churning scenes.
Rating: **** Excellent