12 Years a Slave
Hunger and Shame proved that Steve McQueen’s artistic sensibility was well-suited to cinema, but 12 Years a Slave is the first time he has adapted his visual gifts to a classical narrative and imbued them with humanism. The true saga of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) allows McQueen to tell one man’s extraordinary story, but also expose, as Solomon is passed from owner to owner – the avaricious Paul Giamatti, the conflicted Benedict Cumberbatch, the vicious Michael Fassbender – the workings of the slavery machine and the myriad ways in which blacks were subjugated and humiliated.
McQueen’s unerring compositional sense often expresses all of this in a single image, as in the shot of Solomon dangling from a noose as plantation life goes on around him, but the director’s gaze, while unsparing, is never exploitative or hysterical. The film is beautifully underplayed with an emotional undercurrent that gradually builds an accumulative force, before all of that anger and sorrow finally explodes to the surface in an unforgettable final scene. [Philip Concannon]