Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

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Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an astonishing film that will leave you in awe of both its craft and storytelling.

The film follows the true life tale of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man from New York who was deceived and sold into slavery right under the nose of our nation’s capital. His journey takes him into the south, under multiple masters, in an environment that if he shares his intelligence or true story he will be beaten, or worse, for such behavior. We see the relationships Solomon forms along the way, the lengths he is willing to go survive and the struggles that push him towards his breaking point as he strives to live again.

Getting into the specific details of the plot would miss the point, as McQueen and script by John Ridley is less concerned about the specifics of Northrup’s journey and instead captures the mood and atmosphere of the time. There are no glaring sign posts for the passage of time, months and years just fade away from Solomon, but if you are getting hung up on this you are engaging with the film wrong. McQueen perfectly captures the period and all of the threats and hardships black people had to endure in and outside of slavery. The film has moments of brutality, but it’s not egregious with its use of violence. McQueen doesn’t need to fill the film with violence to make you feel Solomon’s pain and the film does an incredible job of building up one thing after another slowly crushing Solomon’s hope in the progress. The film’s best scene, an incredible single take centered around the discipline of another slave, is the culmination of everything Solomon has dealt with and both he and the viewer hit a breaking point as they have tried to weather this emotional journey as best they can. This film brought me to tears on a number of occasions, but thankfully the final ones shed were that of joy.

McQueen has now made three films with 12 Years a Slave and his prowess as a director rivals any working director out there. His films are filled with single takes that demand the most of his actors and his cast always meet the challenge. The long takes are often simple wide shots that just let the drama between characters unfold in the beautifully photographed environment, but he always has a couple impressive tracking shots built in as well. Getting caught up in the emotion of the film you don’t really notice these flourishes every time, but the lack of a cuts hold you in the moment elevating your emotions. Beyond that, McQueen and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, framed an incredibly gorgeous film that is also one of the most finely produced of the year. It nails the period details and Hans Zimmer’s subtle works perfectly to elevate emotions. There is actually a more modern cue at one point of the film that ratchets up the terror of the situation and I can’t wait to listen to Zimmer’s work independently of the film. Last, but not least, is the work of editor Joe Walker who keeps this film crisply moving along while adding some real inventive flourishes throughout.

The film’s approach to religion is also really fascinating as the two prominent slave owners of the film use the good book to extremely different ends. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford preaches to his slaves about good and carries those teachings to the way he treats Solomon and his other “property.” Inversely, Michael Fassbender’s Epps uses the Bible to validate his punishment and violence he takes to controlling his property. Morally, Fassbender is more or less bankrupt, but his interpretation of the text is accurate. The film serves as an honest portrayal of the positive and negatives of a holy book like the Bible and I can’t imagine McQueen doesn’t want us to stop and think about the failings of religion and how dangerous it can be in the hands of a monster.

McQueen elevates his cast to their highest potential, and when he is getting the wealth of actors that he gets here that is going to produce some amazing work. Chiwetel Ejiofor is incredible as Solomon Northrup as he navigates this journey with strength while always seeming as vulnerable any slave would be during this time. “I don’t want to survive, I want to live,” is a powerful line from the film and Ejiofor plays the part perfectly along those lines. Hope is slowly drained out of Solomon over the course of the film and Ejiofor makes you feel it, but Ejiofor’s most impressive moment comes in the final scene when he shows the humility of Northrup at its most raw. The aforementioned Cumberbatch and Fassbender are very impressive as well, with McQueen’s go to guy, Fassbender, really shining as the terrifying Epps. You just don’t know what this drunken idiot is going to do yet and that makes him the saddest and most dangerous character in the film. Fassbender doesn’t show up till halfway through the film, but he leaves his mark and you will not forget him; another great performance from the star. Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson get the two big female roles in the film and both match their male counterparts. Paulson can be evil here, but we can sympathize with her as she is driven to this behavior by the emotional abuse from her husband, Epps. Nyong’o is given a lot of emotional (and physical) damage to work with and she makes everyone of her scenes count. Her character, Patsey, is Epps favorite slave in a number of ways and she sells the humiliation she has to sit back and take from her master while showing her vulnerability in private. A great performance from a little known actor. The rest of the cast is sprinkled with brief performances from a number of familiar faces with all of them doing great work. Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam are appropriately sleazy as the deceptive criminals who sell Solomon into slavery. Michael Kenneth Williams briefly pops up to show Solomon how powerless he is under slavery, subverting our history with the actor. Paul Giamatti is perfect for his single scene as a slave trader, Paul Dano comes in and becomes a terrifyingly ignorant villain on the Ford farm and Brad Pitt pops up in the end as a sympathetic savior for Solomon. Just a great cast from top to bottom.

12 Years a Slave is an unassailable film and that’s not because of its subject matter. The craft, acting and storytelling on display here is some of the best film making you are ever going to find and has cemented McQueen as one of top film directors working today. An astonishing achievement that is not to be missed.

12 Years a Slave is an A+

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