Slavery is a rough, evil & dark piece of world history. Like others before him, Director Steve McQueen (Shame) tries his hand at bringing the monstrosity that was slavery in the United States to the big screen. 12 Years a Slave is not only a look of the domestic slave trade in the United States, but also a view of the great cotton boom that flooded the deep south and deepened the pockets of many a slave trader.
Although 12 Years a Slave will be compared to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained(2012), they are very different films. Django was escapism at its finest. A film focused on slavery that managed to lean more on the cartoonish side and still remained entertaining. 12 Years is the realistic account of Solomon Northup, a free and educated black man living in New York, who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. The story of Northup’s kidnapping is not totally common but is something that was documented to have actually happened to free black men.
Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor best known for his work in films such as American Gangster, 2012 & Children of Men. This may be the film that propels his career to new heights. Ejiofor was amazing as Solomon, able to convey a wide range of emotion without using long-form speech. It was his large eyes and body language that told the story of what Solomon was feeling, as most of the time his mouth would earn him lashes. The thought of revealing his true identity and then being resold into further obscurity was too much for Solomon to bear. As stated more than once in the movie, a literate slave was a dangerous one. Amongst a cast full of more notable names, Ejiofor was able to stand out on his own.
Michael Fassbender, a frequent collaborator of Steve McQueen’s, gives his finest performance of his career as the cruel slavemaster Edwynn Epps. As horrible of a person Epps appears on screen, appparently this was only the tip of the iceberg as he was reportedly a much worse person in reality. The character of Edwynn Epps is McQueen’s example of a deeply flawed man somehow in charge of other human beings. It doesn’t help that his character is constantly berated by his wife, played by Sarah Paulson of American Horror Story fame. In my opinion, Paulson was the most cruel character in the movie; she spends each minute of her on-screen time showing no positive human emotion. As a fan of Paulson’s work, it was refreshing to see her play someone totally different from her usual roles.
There are many other actors and actresses who make an appearance, including Brad Pitt, who is also one of the producers of the film. Lipita Nyong’o may invoke some Academy Award murmuring after her astounding performance as the slave “Patsey,” the object of Epps’ desire and anger.
One of my favorite things about this movie was the imagery. There were several long and steady camera shots that really let emotion sink in with viewers. If there was a painful reaction shot of Solomon, you felt the emotional pain also.
Warning to those with simple stomachs, the movie doesn’t hold back. The reality of slavery was harsh and 12 Years doesn’t hold back on the violence or language. It also takes a look at slavery not only from the slave point-of-view but also the view from the plantation owners.
I believe in confronting problems head on, versus ignoring issues. As harsh and real as slavery was, it’s a part of history and I applaud filmmakers who attempt to tell the story without holding back. There will be cringe-worthy moments and points where you wonder if you will remain haunted by the brutal images on screen. I urge you not to turn away or skip out on this film. If you do, you’ll miss an almost masterpiece from Steve McQueen and one of the most powerful films released this this decade.
Final Grade: A-