A bit of incidental but not uninteresting intelligence: with this film, Steve McQueen became the first black producer and the first black director of an Oscar-winning best picture. What that says, after 80-odd years, about Oscar’s so-called colour blindness I’ll leave you to decide. At least equally interesting is why it took a British director and a British actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to make and star in this essentially American story, a true one at that, about 19th-century slavery in the USA. In the 1840s Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), an African American, a family man and a violinist, was living in freedom in Saratoga Springs, New York – until he was lured to Washington on the promise of a job, and there was drugged and sold into slavery. Along with other dupes, he was shipped to New Orleans where he was sold to a plantation owner, Benedict Cumberbatch, who treated him reasonably well until events caused him to sell Northup to another plantation owner, Michael Fassbender, a much more vicious piece of work. All along Northup protested that he was a free man and was savagely beaten for such impertinence. Indeed, McQueen and the writer John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s autobiography, spare us nothing in the depiction of the savage, casual cruelty inflicted by apparently civilised white people on their black slaves. There is one chilling scene, set in a rich white person’s opulent home, where the slaves, including children separated from their mothers, are coldly sold off one by one. That and other reasons are why this is not an easy film to watch, absorbing though it is; it involves beatings, whippings, lynchings and the rape of pretty black women used by their owners as bed slaves. As he is moved from one plantation owner to another Northup changes from a man who wants to live to one who simply wants to survive, though still insisting he has been wrongfully sold. It’s not until he is sent to work for a carpenter, Brad Pitt (co-producer of the film, here playing a small but important part), that anyone believes and tries to help him. Pitt is the conscience of the film, pretty much the only decent white person to be seen. This tale of one man’s remarkable survival against cruel and humiliating odds is that rare thing – a movie that confronts the enormity of slavery and the malign effect it had both on the slaves and their owners. And it confronts these things fearlessly and with no holds barred. It won three Oscars: for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress for Lupita Nyong’o, as a slave girl unfortunate enough to become Fassbender’s brutalised favourite. The splendid Ejiofor, however, sadly had to be content with just a nomination.
Think fast. Look alive. Die hard. A deadly game of Simon Says is central to this hundred-mile-an-hour thrill ride, which finds Bruce Willis teaming up with Samuel L Jackson to stop Jeremy Irons from blowing up the city.