Proclaimed by many as “the best movie about slavery” ever made, 12 Years A Slave has made a huge splash for this year’s heated awards season. Director Steve McQueen has brought lots of attention to the shockingly unknown story of Solomon Northup, a highly regarded free black man who got kidnapped and sold into slavery until his release 12 years later. It really seems that there has been an increase in films with strong roles for black characters recently with Lee Daniel’s The Butler receiving a fair amount of recognition earlier last year. Not to mention movies like Lincoln and Django Unchained released in 2012; movies that weren’t so focused on slavery but had characters that were strongly affected by it. It feels as if 12 Years A Slave has come at just the right time.
The film has received lots of attention for not just the story but the violence portrayed in it as well. Although watching Michael Fassbender deliver lash after lash to Lupita Nyongo’s barren and bloody back is sure to make you cringe, it’s not just the uncomfortably violent scenes that cause discomfort. Watching in total revulsion as Paul Dano sing-chants “Run, nigger, run” will also surely do the trick, if not feel even more chilling. It almost seems as if McQueen’s goal was to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible, and this he most certainly does well. Along with some truly amazing performances from newcomers such as Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and great direction from McQueen, 12 Years A Slave definitely delivers on the emotional message that it strives to send.
12 Years a Slave starts off by introducing us to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a once free man who lived in Saratoga until he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. From then on, he is no longer Solomon Northup and is now just another slave. His freedom suddenly seize from him, Solomon finds himself in a nightmare of reality as he realizes that there might be no getting going back to his family, his house, and his old life. He is relatively lucky at first when he gets sold to Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Ford, who is a nicer than usual slave owner, at least when it came to Solomon and even takes a certain liking towards him. However, we only begin to see the cruel and abusive attitudes towards slaves once Solomon becomes owned by the drunken and malevolent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
This harsh biopic is a very intimate and disturbing look into the life of a slave in the pre-Civil War America. Based on the autobiography written by Solomon in 1853, 12 Years a Slave was wonderfully adapted into a screenplay by John Ridley. Ridley’s screenplay mixed with McQueen’s artistic style of direction works perfectly together. The screenplay puts us right in the time period and in the middle of Solomon’s situation, but it is McQueen’s certain vision that gives 12 Years a Slave that huge emotional impact that becomes so apart of the experience of seeing this film. McQueen lets the camera linger during certain scenes. An extreme close-up of Solomon in which we can see beads of sweat glistening on his face in the uncomfortable warmth of the afternoon light and a look in his eyes that speaks of both desperation and even surrender. Those moments, so brilliantly portrayed, put us in the exact time and place of Solomon. It is almost as if we go through it as he goes through it and ultimately what makes the film so effective. McQueen is also fearlessly brutal in exposing reality. It is not an easy film to sit through. We sit through every minute of seemingly endless lashings and even nakedness, with no hints of being erotic at all, is portrayed in the film as a reminder that these slave owners treated their slaves as bad, if not worse than, animals. It’s a powerful view and a bold choice by McQueen that ultimately really pays off in delivering an emotional impact.
It only enhances the story even more that every single actor was spot on in their performance. Of course this isn’t a huge surprise in regards to Cumberbatch, Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, or Paul Dano who have all proved amazing in the past. However, the two relatively unknown actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, steal every scene and have had well deserved amounts of praise thrown at them from both critics and the general public. Fassbender is definitely another top performance and his character almost feels like he could have come directly out of a horror movie. He brings a certain evil that isn’t over-the-top or caricatured at all, though, and his performance feels horrifically genuine. The cast, the script, the set design all work perfectly in sync to elevate how incredibly involved we become with this story.
12 Years a Slave has been nominated for an endless amount of awards and is probably the film that is most expected to nab Best Picture at the Oscars this year (it’s tied with Gravity with ten nominations each from the Academy). I myself was indeed impressed with the movie after finally seeing it a few months after its hype seemed to be at it’s peak. Honestly though, I had high expectations going in and this probably dampened my initial reaction to the movie (hence why it’s taken me a week to write this). I actually found that I wasn’t as crazy about it as everybody else seems to be. I really couldn’t tell you exactly why I feel like this because I can definitely acknowledge all of the film’s amazing aspects and know that it will definitely deserve any award it is given. Is it a film I think everybody should see? Absolutely. Is it a film I can see myself watching again anytime soon? Most likely not. That is okay though, and most definitely does not skew the greatness of the film itself.