12 Years a Slave (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for violence, some nudity and brief sexuality
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard
Small role: Quvenzhane Wallis, Taran Killam
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: John Ridley (based on the book by Solomon Northup)
Review published November 7, 2013
Starting off in the 1840s United States, Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Children of Men) stars as Solomon Northup, a free Black man living as a carpenter and musician in Saratoga, NY, with his wife and two children. Two white men pretend to offer him a job in Washington DC and end up drugging Solomon, covering his traceability with the new name of Platt and sold to a life of slavery in Louisiana, with no one knowing his whereabouts. Never having known what the life of a slave is like, he soon finds out that an educated and talented (and opinionated) black slave in the South is viewed as more of a liability than an asset to prejudiced and jealous plantation owners, which gets him into trouble, and makes his situation go from bad to far, far worse when he ends up working for a cruel slave-breaking owner of a cotton plantation named Edwin Epps (Fassbender, Prometheus). A thousand miles from home and with no one around who will help him, Solomon has dwindling hope that he'll ever find his freedom, and see his family, ever again.
Acclaimed British director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) impresses yet again, taking head-on one of the most difficult subjects to make into a feature film, both controversially and commercially, slavery in the United States. Working from a script by John Ridley (Red Tails, U Turn), who adapts Northup's own incredible memoir published in 1853, McQueen creates a powerful effect by not making the film 'epic' or by proclaiming itself an 'pretentiously important issues movie', but by keeping the emphasis on the characters and their individual stories much more so than as a film meant to cover the topic of slavery as a whole. We don't need to be lectured to about how despicable slavery is through grandiose diatribes delivered by lofty actors; we can see it merely through the story of just one man who experienced something no one should ever have to experience. And to think that Solomon Northup had been treated more civilly than most in his lot; it truly shows the extent of the evil incurred for the sake of money and power. McQueen's juxtaposing of scenes of Northup on a cotton plantation with his happier times as a well-respected free man only heighten just how terrible the conditions are for the enslaved African population in the South.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is nothing short of mesmerizing as Northup, a man who tries his hardest to maintain a sense of dignity about the madness, though he must keep appearances that he does not, in the face of unspeakable oppression. The film not only makes the experience nearly unbearable as we watch a noble, loving man suffering in the most dehumanizing of ways, but also in the many faces and personalities that have been enslaved that we get to know through the course of Northup's story. We've seen the images of a tethered man or woman whipped in many films and television shows before, but with the strong emotional connection to the characters, we can feel the intensity of the barbarism with each progressive snap. But more than this, in his eyes through the course of the movie, we see the horror of a hope that completely dwindles and fades to nothing, until it matches the faces of the other lifelong enslaved people whose only separation between those who enslave them comes from geography and skin color.
Ejiofor is joined by a formidable cast of supporting actors, with McQueen-fave Michael Fassbender a true standout as the psychotic Mr. Epps, who is so erratic in his demeanor that he is even scarier than if he were just painted as purely evil. His character is of a man who has become so corrupted and twisted by his deeds that it would appear that the only way he covers over his sins is by engaging in them to even further depths of depravity. Interestingly, both of the main plantation owners shown utilize scriptures in the Bible as their justification for their actions, though they only key in on a handful out of context and ignore all of the many, many others that run counter to their twisted philosophy.
Just as impressive in a smaller role is the relatively unknown Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey, Epps' pet 'property', who is not only the best cotton picker on the land, but also has the affection, for better or worse, of Epps, to the point where his jealous wife (Paulson, Game Change) commits her own wicked acts against her. As horrific as the men are treated, the women of the plantations are often in far worse straits, as they not only must do the work of the men, but also are powerless to resist the sexual advances of their captors, who also use their children against them, or worse, separate their children from them. (On the downside, the film suffers from the miscasting of supporting actors Brad Pitt (who serves as producer) as a kindly Canadian who listens to Solomon's story, and Adepero Oduye as Eliza, a woman who is separated from her children.)
I'll make no bones about how 12 Years a Slave is a tough watch, as there are a handful of scenes of vicious beatings that will have many in the viewing audience having to avert their gaze from the acts of severe cruelty and torture inflicted on people who deserved none of it. However, as bold and head-on as the story choices are, one can't accuse McQueen of going for shock value or in heightening the graphic nature of the acts, as he mercifully does not dwell on the horrific nature of them, and even keeps some of them off screen or behind a soft focus in the distance. He doesn't shy away from them either, as what's seen is more than most would want to see, but not to the point where the film becomes unwatchable -- the story occasionally breaks your heart, but it's still so utterly compelling that it doesn't break your desire to see what happens next.
While 12 Years a Slave won't be the final movie on slavery, it is so well developed and executed that it may be the most quintessential to come out for many years. It's a blunt but heartfelt delivery, neither whitewashed nor exploitative, with some stunning performances and a fine sense of period. The cinematography from Sean Bobbit (The Place Beyond the Pines, Byzantium) is a true standout, especially in unison with Hans Zimmer's (Man of Steel, Rush) sometimes beautiful, sometimes unsettling score. But it's often McQueen's penchant for lengthy, one-shot sequences without music that brings out moments of contrast, such as a scene showing Northup, in a hangman's noose, trying to get enough of a footing in the mud underneath him to keep from choking to death.
I wouldn't go so far as to say I 'enjoy' watching 12 Years of Slave, but I certainly do feel it is more than worthwhile in order to put a dark chapter in American history in proper perspective. I would also say that, above its importance as a story, I also appreciate the craft, skill and care to which such a powder-keg of a subject is presented cinematically. Northup's story is truly compelling and the images McQueen has given us are frighteningly indelible. It's hands down one of the best and most important films of 2013.
©2013 Vince Leo