THE STORY – In the years before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner (Michael Fassbender), he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon’s life forever.
THE CAST – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt & Alfre Woodard
THE TEAM – Steve McQueen (Director) & John Ridley (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 134 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It has been noted before that one of the most engaging elements of cinema is its ability to establish a strong sense of empathy. The tools at this medium’s disposal are incredibly effective at portraying events in a way that elicits an emotional connection to the material and, regardless of the genre, makes an audience feel drawn into a world with its characters. This is a particularly important skill when tackling subject matter that can be difficult to watch. It is a necessary act to view events of the past that need examination while also maintaining an artistic perspective that feels earned. The narratives that have attempted to look back at the days of slavery vary in execution, with the final goal ultimately being to analyze this traumatic time period with a sense of grace and pointed commentary. “12 Years a Slave” accomplishes this goal masterfully and remains a profound cinematic achievement.
Based on harrowing true events, the story follows the turbulent life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Northup, a freed Black man living in 1840s New York, enjoys life the best he can with his wife and family while earning keep as a talented violinist. One day, he crosses paths with two gentlemen who offer him what seems like a lucrative business opportunity. He eventually finds out these acquaintances have betrayed him, drugging him and selling him into slavery under the false pretense that he is a runaway going by the name of Platt. Northrup endures the horrible conditions, subjected to physical and emotional abuse on a constant basis. He eventually finds himself on the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man whose cruelty knows no bounds. This is sharply felt toward Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a fellow slave who is the center of Epps’s sadistic fixation. Throughout all this hardship, Northup has no choice but to survive with the hope that he can escape this torture and reunite with his family one day.
At this point, the genius talents of Steve McQueen as a filmmaker seem rather apparent. That sentiment extends to every frame of this film that renders its harshness and brutality in such vibrant artistry. That isn’t to say its depictions of violence are crass or exploitative. It can be difficult to experience such material, and some may argue it goes too far in its showcase of Black trauma. However, McQueen is able to paint a vivid portrait that enhances the reality these characters must face. This is achieved through the capitalization of gorgeous crafts, such as stunning cinematography, detailed production and costume design, and meticulous editing. McQueen’s vision is one that articulates the overwhelming bleakness of this chapter of history while also recognizing the fleeting moments of emotional serenity that could oddly descend. It’s a familiar yet bold portrayal at the same time, and the filmmaking does an unbelievable job at illustrating the atrocities as a vital and necessary reflection to be judged.
These themes are similarly infused in John Ridley’s screenplay, which aims to give these individuals who inhabit this gruesome environment a full and complex life. The obvious layer of showcasing the inhumane conditions that slavery bestowed on people is fully realized in a graphic interpretation that shines a necessary truth. However, the exposure of the insidious white establishment that treated this system with endorsement or indifference is also conveyed. The story examines the politics of those who took vicious pride in owning and selling human beings, but also the banality of those whose less forceful positions did not encourage them to be proactive in abolition. It also amplifies the power in the written word and its ability to reveal a much-needed truth to share. The moments where bluntness and nuance are called for are answered at the appropriate times, and the script accomplishes the feat with mesmerizing control.
Every member of this ensemble is also simply extraordinary. Ejiofor anchors this film with a deeply soulful performance. There’s an inner strength he must possess in every scene, sometimes holding back the more trembling emotions in order to withstand one appalling situation to the next. It’s a primarily quiet turn that resonates deeply. Fassbender’s steely evil is horrifying and haunting, yet he remains captivating in presenting this unhinged persona. The ferocity feels unpredictable, and it’s what keeps his performance compelling. Nyong’o is absolutely devastating, particularly in what may be the film’s most memorable act of violence. Yet, there’s a tenderness throughout that amplifies the determination she tries so hard to maintain while carrying an inordinate amount of anguish. Her scenes are excruciating but quite powerful.
These three are the main fixtures of the main standouts, but the cast is filled with other great performers. Sarah Paulson matches Fassbender’s ugly malevolence in Epps’s wife, and her cold delivery makes every heinous word have a chilling effect. Benedict Cumberbatch is the first slave owner that Northup finds himself crossing, and he perfectly embodies the good-natured parts of white society that may not stomach the more unpleasant elements of the system but profit off it nonetheless. Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti both play individuals with sharp maliciousness, and Alfre Woodard delivers a fascinating performance in a scene that explores the different tactics of survival. Brad Pitt’s appearance could be seen as distracting and veers close to the “white savior” territory. Still, his presence feels justified within the story, and he’s serviceable, if not all that extraordinary.
Any viewing of “12 Years a Slave” is likely to be an unforgettable one. Such a significant and dark era of American history deserves to be analyzed thoroughly with a strong perspective. It is thanks to Steve McQueen’s directorial achievements that this tremendous feat is accomplished. The crafts all come together to create a searing rendering of a merciless world that puts one in the point of view of its characters, and the lyrical dialogue and intense themes that run through the script are expertly depicted. With exceptional performances from the entire group, there is hardly a false note that the film conveys. Stories that look back on the history of slavery rarely find such poignancy. This feels like such a unique presentation that deserves to be looked at as one of the best films ever made.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The film is a powerful examination of slavery that utilizes strong crafts and a compelling story to show the brutal events with captivating artistry. All the performances are excellent, particularly the main trio. The details in the design elements are exceptional.
THE BAD – Brad Pitt’s small role is distracting and comes close to indulging in an unnecessary narrative.
THE OSCARS – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress & Best Adapted Screenplay (Won), Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing & Best Production Design (Nominated)