On those rare, bold and special occasions cinema has a definitive way of capturing the historical hideousness of human despair and demoralization. To examine the underlining evilness and atrocities of humanity and package it in a two hour-plus pathos-ridden presentation of stark and revealing entertainment is indeed an artistic achievement to say the least. The sordid showcase of brutality, indignity and outrage can constructively evolve into something so honest, haunting and even disturbingly heart-warming.
Filmmaker Steve McQueen’s (‘Hunger’, ‘Shame’) powerful and piercing period piece drama ‘12 Years A Slave’ is the kind of shocking filmmaking that reminds one of compelling storytelling at its brilliant peak of raw brilliance. Captivating, explosive and emotionally numbing, ‘12 Years A Slave’ is the kind of intense movie-going experience that is an indescribable chore because one must work at their manipulation of diverse feelings. Following in the challenging footsteps of gripping social melodramas such as television’s landmark 1977 mini-series ‘Roots’, 1985’s ‘The Color Purple’, 1993’s ‘Schindler’s List’, 1997’s ‘Life Is Beautiful’ and 1997’s ‘Armistad’, the raging and rebellious ‘12 Years A Slave’ is uniquely unforgettable.
McQueen’s startling and important narrative regarding the nightmarish chapter in America’s horrific past uncovers the tragic travels of one man’s challenged soul and the broken spirit of his impoverished and imperiled people. Sure, ‘12 Years A Slave’ is not an easy film to watch and digest with automatic jubilation. However, its significance and harsh realities as a riveting dramatisation signifies that it is never too late to dismiss the truthfulness, tenacity and terror that genuine cinematic masterpieces are realised with creative empowerment.
’12 Years A Slave’ is based upon the real-life 1853 memoirs of Solomon Northup, an accomplished Northern violinist, carpenter and proud family man whose kidnapping into the rotten realm of institutionalised slavery in the South would impact his so-called idyllic lifestyle as a free black man. McQueen’s penetrating direction, screenwriter John Ridley’s involving script, the elegance of the cinematography and reflective musical score and the bitingly engaging performances — particularly from lead Chiwetel Ejiofor as the gifted musician-turned-captive slave Solomon/Platt — deems this impeccable production worthy of Oscar’s undivided attention.
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) was a well-spoken and established artist living in upstate New York in 1841 enjoying the comforts of his musical craft. He is surrounded by his loving wife and two young children and even enjoys the admiration from some of his white colleagues. Solomon is approached to attend a Washington D.C. concert by a couple of promoters, perhaps lured under false pretenses. The results are disheartening as Solomon is drugged then chained in a dark and dank holding cell along with a handful of other captive blacks. Despite Solomon’s protests that he is a free man from the North, it does not stop the white captors from holding him like prized merchandise then beating him senseless when he speaks out of turn. Soon Solomon’s identity is stripped away and he now must answer to the name Platt.
Solomon is transported on a deadly boat ride and soon to be auctioned off to work as a laborer on a Louisiana plantation. The literate Solomon is admonished by slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) and warned that he must accept his fate as another man’s piece of property, in this case him belonging to Christian preacher Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Master Ford takes a shine to Solomon/Platt and his musical and carpentry skills come in handy to help appease the seemingly accepting slave owner. Eliza (Adepero Oduye), separated and distraught from being away from her children, tries to reason with Solomon that he is fooling himself if he thinks that he is winning any favors from the ‘kind-hearted’ religious Master Ford by trying to be his top ‘butt-kisser’. Solomon responds by stating that he refuses to give into despair much like Eliza does with her constant weeping and unrealistic expectations of returning to her kids any time soon.
The manipulative slave overseer (Paul Dano, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’) does not take too kindly to Solomon’s uppity stance towards him. Solomon’s physical confrontation with this despicable manipulator nearly has him killed as he is left for lynching while barely standing on his tippy toes as he avoids being choked with the noose around his neck. When Master Ford releases Solomon from his doomed position at the end of the rope’ he has no choice but to sell him off for his protection to the diabolical and deranged Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
The unpredictable and nasty-minded drunken Epps is downright abusive to his slaves and the polar opposite of Solomon’s previous owner in the Bible-thumping Ford. Epps is punishing when his slaves does not make their cotton-picking quotas to his expectations and on a whim disturbs their precious sleep in the middle of the night just so that they can sing and dance and amuse him at will. Clearly, Solomon rubs Epps the wrong way because he realises that even as a slave in his sweltering stable that Solomon is more of a complete man than him in comparison.
Interestingly, the vicious Epps seems to have an everlasting and twisted obsession for one of his female slaves in Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for whom he does not hesitate to rape or torture on a moment’s whim. In fact, Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulsen) knows about her husband’s sexual fixation on poor Patsey and actually holds contempt for the vulnerable slave girl when she is at the mercy of the filthy hands of her hubby who violates her repeatedly. Patsey is close to Solomon…something that really bothers the jealous-minded Epps to no end. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, involving psychotic Epps and his petty-minded wife getting the perverse satisfaction of having Solomon whipping the delicate flesh off of Patsey’s petite naked body. It is deliberately gut-wrenching for both Patsey and Solomon as their victimisation is born out of the disgust and dysfunction of the warped Epps, one of the most bizarre and hedonistic married couples ever featured on the big screen.
Marvelously crafted with polarizing poignancy and disenchantment, ‘12 Years A Slave’ is a stunning revelation. Obviously, there have been on-screen accounts of institutionalised slavery sagas that register with their brand of fierce defiance. Still, McQueen’s calculating exposition has a probing distinction for the audience investing in the embedded cynicism and salacious outlandishness of the human condition. Long after the credits stop rolling, one will linger with the devastating imagery of divided families, whippings, beat-downs, hangings, physical and mental fatigue and other descriptive cruelties.
Top-notch and telling performances from a capable cast conveying a surrealistic story of havoc and heartbreak at every inspirational turn. Ejiofor is magnetically forceful as Solomon Northrup, a resilient and dignified man reduced to a hollow shell of somebody else’s definition of a sub-human specimen. We see the detachment in Solomon’s eyes and limp physicality but still realise that whatever restrictive barriers these oppressors throw at him there is enough strength for him hanging on to that glimmering ounce of hope.
The other standout portrayals that serve as memorable are Fassbender’s Edwin Epps and Nyong’o’s Patsey…the ultimate character studies of personalised torment from both ends of the spectrum. Hopefully, the trio of Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o will be rewarded with Academy Award nominations acknowledging the psychological heft that they brought to their tremendous roles. Alfre Woodard’s cameo as a former opportunistic slave-turned-slave owner’s wife is met with a combination of disbelief, humour and sadness. Brad Pitt (who also serves as one of the film’s producers) is on board as a sympathetic traveling Canadian abolitionist who puts into motion the possibilities of Solomon finally being reunited with the freedom that was snatched from him twelve years earlier. There is not much screen time for the likes of Giamatti, Cumberpatch, Dano, Paulsen and Oduye but they are all just as effectively potent in what they briefly bring to the table.
Absorbing and comprehensively thought-provoking, ‘12 Years A Slave’ is one of the most hostile yet insightful movie-going experiences you will realise with glaring appreciation this year or any other year at the movies.
12 Years A Slave (2013)
2 hr. 13 mins.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Adepero Oduye
Directed by: Steve McQueen
MPAA Rating: R
Critic’s rating: **** stars (out of 4 stars)