Slave film a brutal masterpiece

20:45, Feb 25 2014
12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave (R16) 

It's not every day you get to quote Franz Kafka, but this is one of them.

On the subject of literature he once wrote, "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?"

He also wrote, "we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

I'd love to pretend I know that Kafka said this because I've long been a fan of his work, but the truth is I heard the owner of the Children's Book Shop, John McIntyre, using the quotes on Radio New Zealand National last week.


McIntyre used them as a means of illustrating the value in writing honestly about death and disease, even when the readers are young.

"Kafka is saying: ‘hit us with the hard stuff, tell us the truth'," he says.

The quote came back to me in a big way watching 12 Years a Slave.

Slavery is one of those subjects I try to avoid in movies. I kind of feel like I've been there and done that. I've absorbed the fact it went on and that it was a shameful stain in human history. I've taken on board just how despicable it was and now, in middle age, I don't really feel like dwelling on it too much, on the grounds that it's depressing. I feel the same way about the Holocaust.

Fortunately, British director Steve McQueen sees things in a different light because with 12 Years a Slave he has made a brilliant movie that is widely regarded to be the best film about slavery ever made, a film that really feels like "the axe for the frozen sea within us".

The film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American who was abducted in Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery.

The wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced "chew-i-tel" "ej-i-oh-for") plays Solomon with grace, humility, passion and a huge amount of heart. It's the performance that everyone who has followed Ejiofor's career knew he was more than capable of, and he totally deserves all the plaudits and prizes coming his way.

Justifiably joining him on the awards circuit is Michael Fassbender, who plays a sadistic and quite frankly sick plantation owner by the name of Edwin Epps. Fassbender wildly rides his creation to the edge of believability and in the process creates the year's most despicable and indelible character so far.

Adding to the all round acting excellence are Lupita Nyong'o as a slave named Patsey, Sarah Paulson as Epps' wife, Mary, Paul Dano as a nasty piece of work named Tibeats, and Benedict Cumberbatch as another plantation owner.

There are also blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances by Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt, who was a producer on the film.

Amazingly, 12 Years a Slave is only McQueen's third film.

His previous releases, Hunger and Shame, both of which also starred Fassbender, were hits with critics worldwide and there is now no question that he is one of the best in the business.

12 Years a Slave is suspenseful, intelligent, riveting, brutal, shocking and very moving.

It hits hard, resonates deeply and blazes a bright light into a dark corner of Western history, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Be warned: it's not easy to watch, but then films this important rarely are.

■ Bottom line: A gut-wrenching masterpiece.

The Marlborough Express