Film Review: 12 Years a Slave
Solomon Northup is a free black man born in the North in upstate New York. One day he is tricked, abducted and sold into slavery in the South, leaving him separated from his wife and family in pre-Civil War United States.
For those eagerly anticipating the awards contender season for cinema, Steve McQueen’s (Shame) 12 Years a Slave was easily on most people’s radars. Upon its reception at the Toronto International Film Festival and its subsequent win of the People’s Choice Award, the biographical pic of Solomon Northup easily shot up people’s charts as the odds on favorite for Best Picture come awards time. All the hype coming out of TIFF was definitely a positive considering that TIFF audiences had picked past Best Picture winners Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The King’s Speech (2010). That in mind, I easily went into the film with sky high expectations, particularly for leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor who at this point in his career really needs a big break. I’ve been a fan of his work in the various films I’ve seen him in and always thought he was due for a big break. Given this film about a free man being kidnapped and sold into slavery and his fight for freedom, this was his big chance to not only break out, but leave behind a film with such a resonating message of survival through the most adverse conditions. As for my expectations of this film, I was easily rewarded with so much more than I could have ever thought.
When it comes to 12 Years a Slave, it is with full confidence that I say believe the hype. With experts pegging it as the Best Picture winner, it is for good reason, as it is the top film of the year to date. No other movie released in 2013 comes even close to Steve McQueen’s epic drama about Solomon Northup. It all starts with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has the performance of his lifetime as Solomon Northup. Throughout the film he does an incredible job balancing Northup’s quiet sense of defiance with his struggle to survive by keeping his head down. We see just how differently his upbringing in the North differentiates the more submissive nature of the South when Ejiofor reaches his breaking point at several points in the film. It is his struggles with the conflicting messages of fighting back against what is unjust and keeping a low profile to survive that round out his character to make Northup’s story emotionally captivating. You feel for every wrong that is done against him and the other slaves in a way that Quentin Taratino’s Django Unchained utterly fails at. In retrospect, Tarantino’s depiction of slavery is but a caricature when faced with what Steve McQueen presents. Ejiofor is easily the driving force behind the film and admittedly is the front runner for Best Actor.
But it’s not just Ejiofor in this movie that is great. Steve McQueen was able to assemble such a great supporting cast, including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson and a short, but memorable cameo by Brad Pitt. While Michael Fassbender is getting deserved praise for his turn as slave owner Edwin Epps, an equal amount of praise must go to supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o as the slave girl Patsey. As a relative newcomer, she is asked to do so much in this film, and she is just exceptional and will surely garner a campaign for Best Supporting Actress. Through her various predicaments as Epps’ slave, we see just how horrid her life is. The object of affection by Epps and scorn by his wife (played by Sarah Paulson), she finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place, with no hope for the future. Her story comes as heartbreaking, particularly with how the story resolves itself. Cumberbatch, on the other hand, while not as a big a role as the two mentioned before, is great as the slave owner Ford. Early on we can tell that he isn’t completely like the other slave owners, and that there is a part of him that knows what he’s doing is wrong; however, when push comes to shove, we do see how he is a victim of circumstance and is unwilling to do what he knows is just. It adds another perspective to the film and serves as such a contrast to Fassbender’s Epps.
Lastly, when it comes to performances, it has to be mentioned how great Michael Fassbender is. As a more ruthless slave owner, we get to see just how much of a contrast he is compared to Cumberbatch’s Ford. Like Ford, he spouts religious diatribe to his slaves, but does so as a way to justify his undertaking as their master and they his slaves. He is also a character with no respect for them at all, referring to them as property and nothing more, even so far as saying that there is no sin in beating down a slave as they are property and not people. It makes for both a despicable and compelling character, seeing how through his rationale of the way things are, he appears both sane and insane. Sane in the sense that this was the reality of the times, and insane in that he does not feel morally wrong for doing what he is doing. As such, McQueen presents a much more believable figure of a slave owner compared to Leonardo Di Caprio in Django Unchained. I do understand the differences in the two films, and that Django isn’t meant to be taken as seriously, but when presented with a much more serious take on the subject of slavery, Django feels so underwhelming and undermines the seriousness of the issue.
As such, an equal amount of praise has to be given to director Steve McQueen. He just makes so many brilliant decisions in effectively bringing out the emotion and pain during some of the most grueling scenes. His decision to put the violence in the background and the faces of the actors in the foreground may seem odd at first, but it only serves to accentuate the emotion of these scenes. Whereas watching the violence would be just as gruesome, over time it can also have a numbing effect on audiences where it just winds up feeling excessive. I feel many films trying to tell a serious story fall into that trap, but here McQueen avoids it in such a clever way. By focusing on the actor’s and their performances through their face the pain and suffering they go through, it leaves a much longer and haunting image in the minds of the audience. This emphasis on the actor’s performances only adds to the emotional punch that 12 Years a Slave delivers. Another brilliant choice made by him is carrying over audio from one scene and playing it on to the next. The juxtaposition of certain audio clips leaves such an impression during a lot of the film’s transitions that give 12 Years a Slave a streamlined feel despite jumping between events early on.
12 Years a Slave really knocks it out of the park with its resolution. It packs such an emotional punch that is bittersweet. *spoiler* We do finally get to see the sweet justice in seeing Solomon Northup gain his freedom and return to his family, but at the same time there is also the bitterness that only he is set free leaving behind all the other slaves at Epps’ plantation. The man Solomon Northup was before his kidnapping isn’t the same man that returned home to his Wife, son, daughter and her new husband and grandchild. Instead, he returns to Saratoga more of Platt, his slave name, than anything else and he realizes this. His apology to his family for not being there leaves such a lasting impression that helps end the movie on such a great note with virtually nothing flawed about it. *end spoiler*
I absolutely loved 12 Years a Slave and is in my mind the best film of the 2013 so far. There are still two more months for me to be proven wrong, but it’s going to take a lot to top this film. Though the film has only gotten a limited release thus far, if it is playing in your city it is a must watch.
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]