**** out of ****
12 Years a Slave is based on an 1853 memoir written by Solomon Northup, a born-free African American who lived in New York and made a fair living for his family as a carpenter and violinist. The story recalls his kidnapping and the mortifying years that followed after he was sold into slavery in Louisiana.
There is an undeniable power in telling a story of slavery from the point of view of a man who knows freedom. Early in the film, his initial protests are countered with such cruel and intense inflictions of pain that our dread of what is in store for him is overwhelming. It’s the most painfully identifiable scene in the film because we are watching a man, who is not accustomed to such suffering, howl and weep as every lash is a symbolic denial of the loved and respected gentleman that he is.
The display of savagery in this film is necessary. When making a living being your property, there is no comparison to what is entailed with a human. Human beings are not a submissive species in the way that cattle are. We require life-threatening injuries and every other inhuman treatment it takes to destroy our spirits if we are to live against our own will in favor of someone else’s. The very fact that slaves required such harsh treatment should have been proof to their masters that they were not animals. This is a film that is rich in quality from just about every angle but I will hesitate to see it again anytime soon. It’s not a popcorn movie.
This film could have easily been an exploitation of physical suffering but that is only its surface impression. It is really about psychological survival. Before our hero, Solomon Northup, finds his exodus, he is on the very brink forgetting who he truly is.
In every step of the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Northup, displays a level of descent in his adaptation to slavery. Ejiofor has been in movies for a long time now and this is a role that may elevate his popularity up to the “A-list,” whether he’s comfortable with that level of fame or not. I first saw him in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, as a Nigerian doctor living in East London, disturbed by a black-market organ dealing operation, which preys on desperate illegal immigrants. He’s proved to be great in just about everything for which he’s been cast. Even the hilariously abysmal 2012.
The film’s director, Steve McQueen (not the dead actor), has a body of work involving character studies relying on physical expression, rather than verbal explanations, to convey what the character is experiencing. In this one, there is an incredibly long static shot of Solomon outdoors staring distantly until his eyes make contact with the camera lens before returning to something off-screen once more. No words. No music. It’s such a real moment. Its meaning is up to interpretation but I thought it was absolutely beautiful in all its simplicity.
Another thing worth noting about this film is the screenplay by John Ridley, which dares to use period dialects that the players convincingly deliver. The cast is swelling with famous talents, such as Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson.
The amazing Michael Fassbender, a McQueen regular, portrays the monstrous master of a cotton plantation. The majority of the film is about the agonizing years Solomon served this man, while helpless to protect a horribly abused slave woman his master used and tormented to the point of pure despair. This is an unusual role for Fassbender and shows off even more of his versatility. While I am used to seeing him in sinister roles, they are usually of disciplined and rational men. Epps is a drunken hotheaded character normally reserved for the likes of Woody Harrelson or Walton Goggins. Fassbender delves headfirst into this man's loathsomeness.
Historical comparisons to Tarantino’s Django Unchained are inevitable, but I would be quick to disregard them. Tarantino’s movie displayed the horrors of slavery with the controversial cushion of B-movie escapism -which drives his artistry. He never set out to make an important film like 12 Years a Slave. Django is simply more compatible with repeat viewing.
I think by the time of awards season next year, a great amount of the nominees will be films of terror and survival. Most of the quality movies I’ve seen this year have been about these things. Gravity, Captain Phillips, and the newly released All Is Lost are all about perseverance. I am sure that 12 Years a Slave will be widely regarded as the leader in this area.