Steve McQueen's new movie 12 Years a Slave (2013) is a telling and poignant reflection on a disturbing period in world history; unsettling and bristling with emotion, it is perhaps the most humanistic movie I have ever seen. The performances are uniformly brilliant and everybody involved in this picture deserves the accolades that it will no doubt be awarded as the awards season reaches its crescendo over the next few weeks.

The movie tells the story of Solomon Northup, a black male who is a free man living with his family in North America during the 19th century. A musician by trade, Northup is asked to perform on a music tour by two other men. He's drugged by these criminals, transported to the south and is then sold into slavery. This practice was quite common during the period. We as an audience are then witness to Northup's journey through a veritable hornets nest of the human depravity and cruelty he experiences during his time as a slave.

The movie itself is superb. What McQueen manages to do here is something that is quite remarkable. The most stunning thing about this movie is the way it portrays the world in which Northup inhabits. McQueen places his camera during the most harrowing scenes in a position that doesn't shy away from the nature of the atrocities committed in the movie. These scenes are almost unwatchable and yet McQueen places his camera so that the audience cannot move away or adopt a voyeuristic mentality when baring witness to what can only be described as horrifying behaviour. There is one scene in particular when Solomon is being hung that is truly unnerving. McQueen lets the camera remain as still as the trees around Northup - we watch him suffer as people walk past his suffering nonchalantly. We are also given constant reminders of Mother Nature within the frame, as the rivers, trees and soil are a silent witness to the horrors visited on each other by the humans who exist on her planet.

What stood out to me was the fact that from the first scene onwards McQueen is able to show how natural humanity has been removed from the antebellum slaves. There is a horrifying sexual tryst at the beginning of the movie that is indicative of the fact that slavery takes away pleasure from victims, as humanity is nullified. Over the course of the movie physically played music takes prevalence over the score. At the start of the movie human screams sound out over the reading of biblical text and eventually Solomon himself destroys his instrument as his hope perishes. This subtext for me played out over the entire the movie as people talk about the scripture and the hope brought about by biblical text and contextually the hope of music and culture. Once Solomon has burned a letter he wrote to get assistance from the north and he watches it burn in front of him. God like hope cannot survive this environment and many of the facets of cultural positivity and creativity are murdered, in the world of slavery god is dead.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply magnificent in his role. He plays a man of stature in a realistic way; the script doesn't set Solomon up as a paragon of virtue, yet he remains virtuous in the eyes of the audience because of Ejiofor's performance. There is a point when the lens focuses on his face and Ejiofor manages to convey the emotions at play in the entire film in just a few seconds.

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Quite frankly his performance is one of the best I have been privileged enough to see. Michael Fassbender's slave master, Edwin Epps, is a terrifying and psychotic presence. Benedict Cumberbatch is also superb, as is Paul Dano and the rest of the actors who frequent the cast as the slave masters and their employees. What struck me most about the cast and their performances was the fact that the movie chose to portray the experiences of women involved in the slave trade, whether victim or perpetrator. Lupita Nyong'o is superb in her role and she is so courageous with her portrayal of Patsey (a slave who is beaten and raped by Epps) that the actress should be lauded for years to come. Sarah Paulson plays Epps' wife Sarah and her portrayal is illuminating just because of the fact it reverses the old cinematic portrayals of slave mistresses as compassionate onlookers such as the portrayals featured in Gone with the Wind (1939) amongst others. This narrative approach also reminded me of Toni Morrison's seminal novel 'Beloved', which itself was a truly progressive piece.

The composer Hans Zimmer gives the movie one memorably, short theme that is understated and emotional - and it is one that will resonate with me for some time. Thematically, director of photography Sean Bobbit (a frequent McQueen collaborator) again confirms that he is one of the best cinematographers working today. His blacks are so deep that at times it is tough to make out the end of the frame (his shooting of the aforementioned scene in which Northup burns his letter is truly astounding). As the story slips further into darkness so does Bobbit's lighting.

I could write a book about this movie but all I can say that it displays an understanding of its subject, characters and their historical context that is awe inspiring. It is as uncomfortable to watch as it should be. The final scene is stunning and yet we are never allowed the true catharsis we might enjoy because sadly Northup's story is only one of many, perhaps similar stories could be told to this day. 12 Years A Slave is an awe-inspiring picture.