This week we’ll be looking at the favorite for Best Picture this year, Steve McQueen’s historical drama 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita N’yongo, and Michael Fassbender. It is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
In America, pre-Civil War, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) lives a free life with his wife and children, until he is abducted and sold into slavery. Solomon, through various owners and superiors (Fassbender, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch), faces both kindness and cruelty on an extensive journey in which he struggles to retain his humanity and his dignity. Along with fellow slave, Patsey (Nyong’o), Solomon attempts to find peace and rediscover his old life.
I didn’t think I would love this film. I thought I would get bored very easily. These melancholic, biopic dramas aren’t really my jam. But it doesn’t take an expert to see the mastery in this film. I would watch this movie again in a heartbeat. It blew my expectations out of the water, even after hearing so many great things about it. It truly was a masterpiece, and while it may not be my favorite film of the year (well actually, still deciding), it is far and away the best film of the year. Gravity was great and all, but seriously: this movie was simply amazing.
I don’t know where to start. The screenplay? Great. I am expecting an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is written so well, and the dialogue is so genuine and emotional. The sense of realism is absolutely fantastic. The characters, even the hero, Solomon, are all imperfect and more than just characters in a movie. This does have a lot to do with the acting, but I’ll get to that in just a second. The storytelling helps convey Solomon’s journey perfectly, starting from his free beginning, through his struggles and tragedy, to the touching end. Overall, just a great job of adapting and crafting this script.
The cinematography was absolutely dazzling and while I was shocked by many of the nominations this year, I was extremely disappointed by the Academy’s inability to recognize cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s work for this film (Yes I know, Gravity would probably win anyway). This cinematography does a great job of enhancing the emotional experience solely from the camera work. The long, concentrated shots of scenes displaying horror and pain are cruel and emotionally taxing; it’s extremely hard to take as a viewer. (Very minor spoiler alert) The one shot of Solomon Northup’s character being suspended by a rope, struggling to stay alive as day and night pass by while countless slaves pass by is honestly one of the most fantastic pieces of camera work I’ve ever seen. It details the fear of the slaves, as you see them pass by, helpless and too scared to help Solomon down. This scene is another example of the emotional burden this film of because of how helpless the audience feels, as we see Northup flailing, struggling, yet there’s nothing we can do but wait and watch. An unbelievable piece of camera work.
I can’t say enough good things about the acting performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s absolutely killed it, perfectly playing a character with a huge range of emotions but also a will to survive. Even though Solomon’s character is a hero, he’s not selfless. He will do anything to survive. He is not afraid to fight back, sometimes even arrogantly. It is tempting to portray a protagonist as a perfect hero in a story such as this one, but Solomon Northup is, thankfully, not that perfect hero. The other performance that stood out to me was Michael Fassbender’s job slave owner Edwin Epps. Epps is such a brutal, inhumane monster, and somehow, Fassbender was able to capture all that evilness and channel it. It’s underratedly difficult to play a character like this. Sometimes, all the anger and evil is just too much for an actor to capture.
If you’re looking for criticisms, I guess I can give you Benedict Cumberbatch’s pathetic Southern accent and Brad Pitt’s ninety seconds of glory, but that’s about it. This film is cunning, emotional, and intense from beginning to end and is one of the best films I’ve seen in theaters in a while.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
On the surface, it may feel like slavery in the Antebellum-era has been addressed before. Mainly because whenever a movie about it does come out, there are weeks of controversy surrounding the film. Take Django Unchained from two years ago as an example. After a few weeks of controversy and a couple of award ceremonies, it evaporated into the filmography of 2012.
In that sense, movies addressing slavery (Whether fictionalized or very real) seem somewhat unremarkable. But in reality, they make up a very important, evolving genre that is slowly unfolding before our eyes. I can think of numerous movies surrounding atrocities of World War I, World War II, Vietnam and others but I can’t really come up with a ton of films that address slavery during Antebellum, a relatively “peaceful” time that has seemingly lost its place in historical fiction.
However, I’d say our movies about American history have gotten far more introspective, and slavery is a time that’s ripe for exposing flaws that seem very distant from us. 12 Years a Slave fits perfectly into that genre by all accounts. It’s a piece that dives deep into the brutality and motivation behind the forced labor that took place in this very culture.
For starters, there’s no real plotline to the story. If it were put on to paper, it’d be just an extended narrative of a free man who deals with the unpredictability that everyday slave life has to offer. Many of the scenes just take time to breath in the atmosphere. There are solid, minute long blocks where we see tedious cotton-picking or construction with Hans Zimmer’s score acting as a backdrop. That’s far more accurate than anything. Slavery for most wasn’t a saga with monologues and action strewn throughout (Just as many a producer would be eager to depict it as), it was a plodding from day to day that with occasional bursts of violence: something the movie definitely isn’t shy to show the audience.
It is slow, very slow but in a way that is perfect to how its characters live and how its era functioned. Meanwhile, its actors are perfectly in sync with it. Every part of the movie works with another to ensure that it constituents an unflinching portrayal of slavery.
Aside from that, I wondered what the exact moral of the film was when I finished but I came to one conclusion: there isn’t one but it still has a lot to say. No matter how frustrating it is, I love when a movie doesn’t spoon feed me a point or offer up simple answers. The point here, at least to me, is to show the brutality of a process that we already know is very brutal but don’t fully understand. Just like the rest of history, we’ll probably never fully understand.
I’d even say that the movie has no thesis but instead one question that it opens and closes with: “Can one truly escape slavery?”. The entire film is build on the premise of a free man being forced back into labor and, in the end, there’s no real conclusion as to how Northup lead his remaining life besides his legal pursuit of those who wronged him. As far as we know, the past is still going to haunt him and all he has left is to run.
That is the movies definition of dehumanization and its far more effective than any secondary account.