Release Date: October 18, 2013 (Limited); November 1, 2013 (Wide)
Director: Steve McQueen
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 9/10
Even in the 21st century it is still hard to fathom that at one point in American history people were forced into slavery. There was no equality, no rights, simply man and his property. To be a slave meant to be the lowest of the low. To be a slave owner is a title many proudly wore; it was a title of distinction, prosperity and respect. Amongst slave owners there certainly were the few who actually treated their slaves with respect while others treated them like animals. Amongst slaves there were those who were resigned to their status while others accepted it but still held their heads high despite being a slave. Solomon Northup was amongst the latter. He was a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. His incredible ordeal is chronicled in Steve McQueen’s powerful adaptation of Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave.
It is 1841. Solomon Northup is a free, educated, successful black man living with his family in upstate New York. Making his living as a violinist he joins a touring gig that brings him to Washington DC. After a night of revelry he awakens shackled in a dank, dark cell. Beaten but far from demoralized he is taken south to Louisiana and sold into slavery. He becomes the property of Master Ford, a benevolent slave owner who is not beyond giving respect to his slaves especially if they’ve earned it. After a run in with Ford’s overseers, Northup soon becomes the property of malevolent slave owner Edwin Epps. While under his ownership Northup faces the harsh realities of being a slave and the struggle to not despair grows more difficult with each passing day.
It’s been some time since slavery has been depicted on screen in such unflinching honesty. You may have to go as far back as Roots for such a depiction. Yes last year’s Django Unchained dealt with slavery but that was done in a rather grandiose fashion. Amistad and Glory addressed slavery but it wasn’t the films’ primary focus. It was a mere footnote in Lee Daniel’s The Butler. Steven McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley adaptation doesn’t pull any punches. It is brutal, violent and unsettling. It is very likely the most realistic film version of slavery short of being a documentary. It’s not that gruesome either, while there is a whipping scene that is reminiscent of the scourging scene in Passion of the Christ.
12 Years a Slave also proves to be one of the most beautiful depictions of cruelty ever committed to film. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography captures the south beautifully; the flowing rivers, the cotton fields and opulent mansions. However, he and McQueen achieve the most striking compositions when a moment of violence is juxtaposed against a backdrop of unsettling beauty. There is a moment where a character has been left to hang. The scene runs for a very long time and in the background life goes on. The composition is haunting and this is just one example of many scenes throughout the film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an award-worthy performance as Simon Northup. His expressive eyes, facial expressions and demeanor really convey the man’s struggles to maintain his dignity and not fall into despair. There are numerous stand out moments but his performance during the aforementioned whipping scene is excellent. Michael Fassbender also delivers a powerful performance as Edwin Epps. Menacing and unhinged he personifies all that is bad about slavery. Lupita Nyong’o makes a memorable feature film debut as Patsey, the slave girl who “receives” Epps’ affections. The cast also features Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodward, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti.
12 Years a Slave is a haunting look at the true story of one man who was put through an ordeal that pretty much dragged him through the depths of hell. Fine performances, excellent direction, well written screenplay and splendid cinematography are just some the reasons why this is one of the best films of the year. Certainly not the type of film mainstream audiences would want to seek out but it is a film that should be seen and one that ultimately proves to be a rewarding movie-going experience.