Posted on Monday, September 9th, 2013 by Laremy Legel
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free northern man who was kidnapped and sold into bondage in the 1840s, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from the horrific aspects of a slave trade that existed for hundred of years, sweeping up more than 12 million souls. Familial separation, abuse, torture, the idea that the slaves were no better than beasts; it’s all laid bare for the audience to witness.
Though not a “light” film by any measure, this is a well-executed drama dealing with a horrific historical occurrence. Director Steve Mcqueen has proven that he’s a burgeoning young auteur, a vibrant force that should deliver us a slew of great films in the decades to come. Just as with his previous film, Shame, this is a gutting experience, and McQueen, as channeled through the extremely capable cast of Chewitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, crafts a two-hour story that can’t help but leave you drained as the credits come up.
This scourge upon our nation, the bondage of an entire race, ensnared more than a few people who hadn’t ever lived in the South prior. To convey this lesser known facet of history, Chewitel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man, and a violin player, living in New York with his wife and children. His life is portrayed as idyllic, and it’s clear he’s held in real esteem by the community. As a musician, he’s in demand, so when his family heads out of town to see his in-laws, he takes a job touring Baltimore with a circus. Tragically, this employment is part of a larger, more sinister plan, the kidnapping of African Americans for their transport to the American South, to be sold as slaves. As to why Solomon was swept up, the film hints at the idea of a case of mixed identity, but clearly there’s not much logic to a marauding gang of slave traders.
Solomon ends up in New Orleans, where his many protestations of freedom go unheeded, and from there he’ll be no better off than a cog in the slave system, the codified subjection of an entire populace. He becomes known as “Platt.”This name is beaten into him, and he’s warned by others that the very idea of a black man who can read and write is abhorrent to slave owners, the kind of thing that could get him killed for no reason at all. Escape also seems impossible, and slaves are often hung for far less. From then on, Solomon’s life becomes a that of a man trying to hide who he really is, without losing hope that he can one day get back to the life he used to have.
Emotional resonance occurs in almost every scene. The juxtaposition between Solomon’s old life and his new one is profound. The emotionally devastating loss of his wife and children can’t me minimized. Plot aside, this is a film of massive sadness and despair. Solomon is a gentle and kind man with a family, yet his captors show him no mercy, and daily beatings are part of the way business is done. Very little kindness is shown those considered to be “lesser”.
Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of 12 Years a Slave is its portrayal of religion as both a source of comfort and pain, as slave owners often used biblical interpretations of scripture to justify their actions, but slaves also looked to Biblical stories for inspiration: Pharaoh being struck down, Moses wandering in the desert for 40 years seeking salvation.
In terms of performances, a few exceptional ones stand out. Benedict Cumberbatch, as slave owner William Ford, is a conflicted part of the trade, especially where Solomon is concerned. Ford can tell Mr. Northup is a man of exceptional talents. Northup’s book took pains to point out that not every slave owner was the same fiery-eyed sociopath, and Cumberbatch does well to show that dichotomy.
Speaking of fiery-eyed sociopaths, Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, another one of Solomon’s owners, though he’s of the more “drunken and prone to violence” sort. Epps seems to be about the worst humanity has to offer, but Fassbender fully commits to the role and some of the scenes he and Ejiofor share are incredible, though of course difficult.
Director Steve McQueen’s calling card is his use of long takes, and this film is no exception. The actors are given minutes at a time without cuts or camera movement to interrupt their performances. Lastly, on Mr. Ejiofor’s part, the lengths he’s willing to go to in his portrayal of Solomon Northup are astounding. Emotionally, this must have been his toughest work to date, and he’s clearly the early frontrunner for a well-deserved Best Actor Academy Award. Accolades forecasting aside, as that’s clearly not really the point, 12 Years a Slave does well to shine a light where there was so much institutional darkness, bringing narrative exposition to an era that is, thankfully, nearly unfathomable to us now.
/Film score: 8 out of 10