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12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013)


When looking at the subject matter of a film, it is tempting to judge its merits on the importance of the story its telling. Dramas about war are rarely bashed in the critical mainstream and historical epics are generally given good reviews as long as the subject feels important and necessary. I believe that this was the case in 2012 when Lincoln achieved exalted status despite being mostly speechifying men sitting in rooms and nothing else. If a film presents all the right parts: human struggle, evil oppressors, lots of crying, etc., it tends to be praised as one of the best films of the year. Underneath all those necessary parts, however, is sometimes very little of substance, making the film seem like torture porn just for the sake of it. It is for these reasons that I went into 12 Years a Slave with a skeptical eye. The film had been praised as the contender to beat at the Oscars and was being tauted as a life-changing experience by some critics. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have another Lincoln experience, in which people would make grand, overwrought proclamations about slavery set to a sickeningly sweet score.

It was to my own pleasant surprise that I found myself overcome with emotion by the time the credits rolled two-and-a-half hours later. 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man living his life in the deep south in the midst of brutality and slavery. Solomon’s entire life and future with his family is changed forever when he is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. As he is passed from slaveholder to slaveholder, Solomon feels a variety of emotions, sometimes expressing feelings of sorrowful grief and other times standing strong and confident in his abilities. What gives the story of 12 Years a Slave such a fresh spin is that Solomon is a literate, well-educated man who knows that his abilities are more suited towards high-minded tasks. He is an accomplished violin player with better vocabulary and critical thinking skills than most of his fellow slaves. He is told early in his slaving experience, however, that an educated slave is a dead slave, which makes his struggles all the more painful for him. He was once a man of great worth providing for his family, but now he’s just another number. His name is changed to Platt and his entire identity is stripped away before he can say otherwise. The worst part is, he can’t say otherwise.

 

Much of the film centers on Solomon’s experience with the sadistic cotton farmer Edwin Epps, played with primal ferociousness by Michael Fassbender. Epps and his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) rule over their farm with malice in their hearts, causing Solomon to come close to saying the wrong thing on many occasions. Epps lusts after Solomon’s friend Patsey, played by extraordinary newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, a slave girl with particular talent in picking cotton. Epps’ lust for Patsey is not lost on Mary, who inflicts great misery upon the girl when she isn’t already resigning herself to Epps’ advances. The moments of brutality Patsey faces throughout the film are almost unbearable to watch without physically reacting to her struggle.

Michael Fassbender & Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
 

These moments of utter darkness are among the most powerful scenes in an already emotional film, proving to be heartbreakingly effective. Director Steve McQueen lingers on many of these scenes for extended periods of time, allowing the audience to fully experience the horror as it would have played out in real life. There is a scene in the middle of the film in which Solomon hangs by a noose with his feet just barely touching the ground that goes on for several minutes. We hear his gasps for air and we see his stubborn desire to stay alive. Yet all around him, life continues to go on as usual, with nobody, not even his fellow slaves, batting an eyelash to the atrocity he is facing. McQueen masterfully makes the audience linger on helplessly, waiting for the scene to be over and for Solomon to be okay. 

 

The brutality scenes are not the only ones that employ this technique. As Solomon and his fellow slaves mourn the death of one of their own, the camera lingers on his face as he experiences numerous emotions all at once. With his fellow slaves singing a hopeful spiritual around him, Solomon is overcome and joins in the spiritual, tears in his eyes. Ejiofor gives the performance of his life just through his complex facial expressions, giving off feelings of sorrow, helplessness, stubbornness and hope at the same time. Solomon is a man thrown into a situation without mercy and all he’s trying to do is make the best of it. The film uses silence to great effect, letting the faces of the slaves tell the story without the need for dialogue. Near the end of the film, there is a glimmer of hope for Solomon and he becomes more hopeful of his potential freedom and escape from the years of hell. He turns back and looks at Patsey, who does not have that same feeling of hope. She is resigned to a lifetime of servitude and horrible treatment, and that’s not something Solomon is able to shake.

 

There is a power in McQueen’s visual storytelling that is hard to find in mainstream cinema. The wide landscapes of the farm are shockingly lonely and devoid of life. The classic determinist belief that forces greater than yourself are controlling your life is prevalent throughout. The film doesn’t want you to feel good because the entire era of slavery is one of the most shameful in American history. 12 Years a Slave is a haunting glimpse into the atrocities mankind is capable of hurling upon each other while showcasing the conviction of a man desperately clinging to the hope that some day he shall overcome.

 

Grade: A
MVP: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Awards Potential:

Best Picture
Best Director: Steve McQueen
Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender
Best Supporting Actess: Lupita Nyong’o
Best Supporting Actress: Sarah Paulson
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Production Design
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing

Photo: Fox Searchlight

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