Solomon North (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man and gifted musician from up-state Saratoga, New York. He lives comfortably with his wife and children, his life is good in 1841.
Falling in with travelling performers, he is contracted to join the troupe and play the violin, no big deal, just a few weeks away from home.
However, before long his nightmare journey into the gaping maw of legal slavery begins. Nobody will believe his status as a “free man”, in fact he places himself in further danger each time he ventures the idea.
A portentous view of the scarlet red steamer paddle, thrashing through the depths, acts as a metaphor as Solomon is inexorably transported South, to be offered for sale and into servitude.
Beaten and with any vestige of personal dignity stripped away, he encounters male and female slaves who offer ways in which he can hope to survive. Fit in, do not raise your eyes, do as you are told and never ever challenge those with power over you.
We meet a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), plantation owners (Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender) and overseers (Paul Dano), who all possess varying degrees of brutality, misplaced godliness and psychopathic tendencies.
Even those that treat their slaves with some modicum of care, should be viewed in the light of humans forcing others to work against their will, with no pay and poor living conditions.
The juxtaposition of Southern high society and the life of a slave is cruelly highlighted. Those not free, quite literally bought and sold as property, to do with as the owner saw fit. Live or die, the law would not only look the other way but condone all and any actions. The dying embers of Solomon’s letter desperately seeking a patron, sets the tone as it fades to an ominous and unrelenting black.
Chiwetel Ejiofor features in almost every scene, finally finding a suitable film for his considerable acting talents. Michael Fassbender makes for a chillingly believable plantation owner, full of repressed sexual anger and religious fervour, a lethal combination.
Brad Pitt, producer on the film also plays a small part, in many ways detracting from the films believability, purely because we think we know him so well. Arguably with such famous faces, the viewer is pulled out of the story.
The stand out role and rightly Oscar recognised, is from Lupita Nyong’o as “Patsey”. Managing to shed her 21st century look and feel, she conveys a character authentically anchored in the period setting, a feat beyond many of the main actors, despite their best efforts.
The film is unrelentingly bleak, humans committing atrocities against others, both verbally, psychologically and physically. Whether this is anyone’s idea of entertainment is for the viewer to decide.
The physical violence is brutal, not gratuitously graphic but certainly uncomfortable to watch, most notably an extended whipping sequence. Arguably any more detailed attempts at reality by director Steve McQueen, would make the film unwatchable for a modern audience.
Be warned, this is no wish fulfilment “Django Unchained”. Those that do wrong remain unpunished, revenge is not wrought and justice remains a foolish dream. Despite the terrific central performances and it’s worthy subject, the film does retread familiar beats and may represent the final cinematic word on this dark period of human history.
An undeniably well made film, providing an unflinching account of slavery, taking the Oscar for Best film in 2014. Similar to “Schindler’s List”, the film highlights one glimmer of hope amongst the darkness, providing an “acceptable” audience view into the wider tragedy.
A difficult uncomfortable watch and arguably one that may remain unseen by many it seeks to inform. Slavery continues in one form or another to this day, with the basic unalienable right of freedom, remaining an elusive dream for many.