In 1915 D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation was released; arguably the first great feature film that is as revered for its pioneering methods as it is condemned for its sickening rhetoric against the abolition of slavery and trumpeting of the Ku Klux Klan.
It's taken almost a century for a riposte of equal magnitude. 12 Years a Slave is the movie about slavery that was desperately needed, a brilliantly told true story of enslaved free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofer) that is both fierce and fantastic in equal measure.
Northup is an educated man and talented musician living with his family in 1840s New York. After two duplicitous men lure him down to Washington and sell him in to slavery, he spends the next 12 years working on various plantations, for varyingly sadistic owners in which he is told: "You are no better than prized livestock."
Whilst this is a story traditionally told, it's far from the Shawshank Redemption of slavery. The virtuoso way in which British director Steve McQueen has composed this picture means that by the end you are left shaken, upset and incredibly angry.
It's a never-ending nightmare depicted on screen. Hans Zimmer's blaring horns as the paddle steamer whisks them down to an antebellum hell, the lashings of the whip with cries of agony heard amongst the cotton fields, the passive faces and broken resolve of the black men and women who day in, day, out, are reminded of their lowly status - It's an at times unbearable experience.
McQueen has depicted brutality on screen before, showing the harsh treatment of Bobby Sands and the other IRA prisoners in his outstanding debut Hunger. But the story, the scope, is so much bigger here. In one incredible shot the camera pans up from Solomon's cries in his prison cell up to The White House standing proud on the Washington skyline, at once linking his personal misfortune with the foundations that the United States was built on.
No punches are pulled. In the director's use of excruciating long takes, the reality, the whole gravity of the situation, is revealed. One scene sees slaver Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) being escorted around the naked bodies of the slaves, like mannequins on display. In another, Solomon is punished for daring to speak up by literally being left hanging as the other slaves go about their work in the background. Most distressing of all, and the scene which has notably caused some people to walk out, sees sadistic plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) whip a slave again, and again, and again, to within an inch of her life.
These unflinching moments are all endured by Solomon, who is magnificently played by Ejiofer. Full of quiet, pained dignity, the sense of injustice that burns within him is tempered by a steely resolve to survive his plight. Whilst he's been a stalwart of British TV screens for some time, this is the role that will not only elevate him to the Hollywood echelon, but surely garner him next year's Oscar.
The supporting cast is equally incredible. From Paul Dano as a callous farmhand to Sarah Poulson as Epps' vindictive wife, they each get their moment to make their mark whilst at the same time augmenting the tumultuous journey Solomon takes. Fassbender gives his greatest performance yet as Epps, a ruthless and perverted plantation owner a world away from Leonardo Di Caprio's cheery Calvin Candie. He is a tortured soul, preaching the gospel whilst beating his servants and infatuated by one of them named Patsey. A phenomenal debut from Lupita Nyong'o, her abuse and assault at the hands of Epps and his wife is the most painful tragedy of them all to watch.
Never before has this dark stain on Western history been brought to life with such horror. McQueen has achieved that incredibly rare feat, crafting a traditional Hollywood movie without sacrificing his ferocious filmmaking style. Last year's Lincoln and Django Unchained might have focused on the same subject, but in 12 Years a Slave, the almost unimaginable evil of slavery has been laid bare.
12 Years a Slave is screening as part of the 2013 London Film Festival. The film will be released in UK cinemas nationwide from 24 January.
London Film Festival Reviews