“12 Years A Slave” is that Rare Thing, A Serious Film.

12 Years A Slave.

12 Years A Slave.

In 1967, the now legendary Stax Records sent its modest rostra of fledgling stars on a minor tour of Britain and France. It was a sensation.

Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs and co couldn’t believe it. Audiences in Britain were responding to them as if they were the Rolling Stones. Actually, most of the Stones were there in the audience, and they were as blown away by what they were hearing as everybody else.

The legendary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

The legendary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

But what really got them, was driving around England on the modest Tour bus that Stax had organized for them, they’d occasionally stop off at some sleepy town at the back end of beyond in rural England, get out the bus, and go into a shop! In the front door! And there, they’d be served their stale sandwiches and fizzy pop, as if this was the most normal thing in the world.

It wasn’t. In those days, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, black people were expected to refrain from contaminating polite society by removing themselves from every corner of it. Being treated in England and France like normal human beings, indeed, like stars, was a complete revelation for them all. (Actually, it kind of ruined them. But that’s another story.)

That was 1967. Less the 50 years ago.

No wonder Obama took that selfie at Mandela’s funeral. Even he must occasional have to pinch himself. Imagine, barely a generation after that, there’s a black man in the White house.

The book that it was based on.

The book that it was based on.

Slavery is to race what Hiroshima is to the atomic bomb. It’s its necessary consequence. And together with Hiroshima and the Holocaust, slavery is one of the three colossal, unfathomable questions marks that punctuate modern history. Any film that tries to tackle it has a hundred and one ways of getting it horribly wrong.

Look at Schindler’s List. By focusing on the one good Nazi, Spielberg was able to cloak the holocaust with a beginning, middle and end, and thereby turn in into A N Other Hollywood film. Which is unforgivable.

Remarkably, 12 Years A Slave gets everything absolutely right. It’s helped by the nature of its story. Solomon is an educated, affluent, artistic man living a privileged life. He is in other words what we all aspire to be. So when he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery, our sympathy for him is immediate.

If on the other hand you were to tell a story of someone who was already a slave, there’s the danger of seeing them, however unintentionally, as the Other. As one of them. Can anyone imagine Spartacus playing the violin in evening wear? By beginning in this way, you necessarily feel for him and his predicament in a way that you mightn’t have done had they approached the topic in a different way.

The fact that he is a classically trained musician could have encouraged the film makers to drape their film in reams of music. Their decision to use music but sparsely throughout is again exactly the right one. As ever, less is more.

Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

But at the heart of the film are the central performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor has been hovering on the fringes of stardom for some time now – he was particularly memorable in  Joss Whedon’s criminally overlooked Serenity, see here . That will obviously change now. And Michael Fassbinder confirms, again, why he is one of the hottest properties anywhere in the world.

And as for director Steve McQueen. As intriguing as his first couple of film, Hunger (’08)  and Shame (’11) were, this is a completely different calibre of film.

12 Years A Slave is that rare thing; moving, profound and serious. You can see they trailer here.

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