Steve McQueen, the actor, all steely ice blue eyes, furrowed brow and golden locks was a Holywood legend, “The King of Cool”. His filmography is impressive (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, Papillon, Magnificent Seven and Towering Inferno) yet the Academy only recognised him with a single nomination for his leading role, in the lesser known 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles, which he failed to convert.
No lifetime achievement awards either. Nada.
And yet his name pervades popular culture as toweringly as the inferno he escaped from.
Fast forward to 2008 and and his namesake and former visual artist, (he was the official Iraq War artist in 2003) makes his feature movie bow.
By then McQueen already has an OBE (2002) to his name, for services to the arts, before he even sat in a director’s chair -he won the highly prestigious Turner prize in 1999.
In 2011 he added a CBE to his honours.
Today he may be on the cusp of eclipsing the achievements of his illustrious predecessor.
McQueen honed his craft by making no fewer than 20 shorts before emabarking on Hunger; his breathtaking debut feature that tells the story of Bobby Sands and the “Dirty Protests” in Belfast’s Maze prison, with his, so far, ubiquitous right hand man, Michael Fassbender.
Shame, in 2011, continued his elevation to directorial greatness in a shocking tale of sexual addiction.
For me, it is something of a surprise that neither Hunger, nor Shame, were recognised in the best movie categories of either the BAFTAs or The Oscars, but that is all about to change with 12 Years a Slave. Indeed it already has 10 nominations at the BAFTAs and surely chief amongst them is McQueen’s.
Whatever you may think of the movie itself it’s the point of it that deserves most attention and applause. Now, that sounds worthy but it shouldn’t be seen as such because it is not just a monumental piece of filmmaking, but one with purpose, vision and bravery.
The first EVER feature film about slavery. How can that be?
The politics of America that’s how.
Sure, Tarantino made a brilliant pastiche of slavery last year with Django Unchained, and for those of us of a certain age Roots long lives in our memory (but that was a TV series). So too, Lincoln focussed heavily on the issue, but not the experience.
This, however, is a full on cinematic release described by one reviewer as the “greatest film ever made” that unswervingly captures the experience of one man kidnapped from a life of freedom, of privelage, in 1841 New York and transported to the sweltering cotton and sugar cane fields of the deep south.
What follows is almost two hours of unremitting injustice, backache, torture and frustration as the aforementioned Solomon Northup tries to prove his status as a free man, fighting injustice when he can but more often than not having to suffer in silence to protect his very existance.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the title role, is on screen throughout, sweating like no actor I’ve ever seen, in the oppresesive Southern heat and humidity.
His performance is both proud and defiant and as the movie progresses increasingly moving.
Once again Fassbender commands the screen as evil plantation and slave owner, Edwin Epps, but at times scenes are stolen by his super-evil wife played by Sarah Paulsen.
Brad Pitt scoops an important cameo role, perhaps thanks to his role as Executive Producer and, by all accounts, he is one of the main catalysts for the movie to happen. It’s only fair that his character is a catalyst for the resolution of the movie.
Benedict Cumberbatch also puts in another fine cameo performance as the one “good guy” plantation owner and initial “owner” of Solomon Northup. The counterpoint between him and the rabid plantation overseer Paul Dano is excellent.
Other supporting roles are well played but this is essentially Ejiofor and Fassbender’s movie.
No, it’s not actually, it’s McQueen’s.
This is a masterclass in direction with foot perfect cinematography and a very good score by Hans Zimmer. The movie’s perfectly paced, with just the right amount of lingering mood and tense action. One scene in which Fassbender’s concubine is whipped to within an inch of her life is truly appaling. You flinch at every stroke. By contrast the scene where Northup simply turns his head right to left, up and down, as if to say “help” is breathtaking in its simplicity and resonance.
It WILL go down in history as an important document of America’s deepest guilt that festers even today, and McQueen WILL win both his first Oscar and a Knighthood.
Above all else though, it is a great, really great, movie.