Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley based on the book by Solomon Northup
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o , Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt
Let me just start by saying that 12 Years a Slave pulls absolutely no punches. Director Steve McQueen gives the audience an absolute unflinching depiction of slavery which naturally at times can be very difficult to watch. Despite these difficulties, I can assure you that this movie is well worth the effort.
In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living a quiet life with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York. He primarily makes his living as violin player, and one day while his family is out of town he is approached by two men claiming to be part of a travelling circus. After luring him to Washington D.C., the two men drug Northup and sell him into slavery. When he tries to proclaim his status as a free man, he is brutally beaten and warned to never tell anybody the truth of who he is if he plans to survive. Afterwards he is sent to a plantation in Louisiana where his name has been changed to Platt and he spends the next twelve years in nightmarish servitude. He starts out working for the relatively kind William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) but is eventually sold to the sadistic and mentally unstable plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
As I said before, McQueen shows the evils of slavery with brutal honesty. However, he manages to find a delicate balance that gives a straightforward depiction of the evil without feeling exploitative. This includes a scene where as punishment for beating an overseer with a whip, Northup is hung from a tree but kept just low enough that he can stay alive by standing on his toes. This goes on for what feels like several minutes while the other slaves go about their business as usual to avoid the same fate.
There is also a slave woman who after being forced to separate from her children is understandably overcome with grief. Her misery is met with an almost cruel indifference from Ford and his wife and when they are unable to get her to stop crying they opt to simply get rid of her lest she dampen the morale of the other slaves. Sadly, things only get worse for Northup once he moves to Epps’ plantation. Going into this movie, I thought knowing how it ended would make it easier to watch. I was wrong.
Ejiofor and Fassbender have always proven to be talented actors but here they both give quite possibly the best performances of their careers. Ejiofor does an unbelievable job portraying a man fighting a losing battle to hold on to the one thing he has left: his dignity. As the movie progresses you can see him steadily losing more and more hope each day especially in the employ of Epps. In one particularly memorable scene, the audience gets an extreme closeup to Northup’s face. I looked into his eyes and saw a man who had all but tragically resigned himself to his fate and he did this all without saying a word.
While Fassbender isn’t quite as good as Ejiofor, he gives an Oscar worthy performance of his own. From the moment he appears on screen, he makes it abundantly clear that his character is not a man to be trifled with. We know immediately from his first lines what kind of slave owner he is. He, like countless other slave owners saw them as nothing more than property and is not above using Bible scripture to justify it. I could feel the tension with every scene he was in. Even he when he wasn’t beating his slaves he made feel incredibly uneasy and wondering what he would do next. The only other character that has ever made me feel this way is Colonel Landa from Inglorious Basterds.
The film’s only real flaw is the presence of Brad Pitt. He has a bit role as a carpenter who works briefly for Epps and his appearance while brief, is incredibly distracting. This might not have been as bad but Pitt decided to go with the same accent he used when he played the southern Lt. Raine in Inglorious Basterds which I found to be incredibly odd since his character is Canadian. While I respect Pitt as an actor, I think as the movie’s producer he would’ve done the film a big favor if they had cast a lesser known actor instead.
12 Years a Slave has been the front runner for Best Picture for weeks now and I think I may end up joining the bandwagon. Despite the minor error in casting Pitt, the rest of the cast is nothing short of excellent and the writing is superb. While it is not always easy to watch, McQueen tells the story elegantly and the end result is an emotionally powerful film that is without a doubt one of the best of the year.