After hearing all the raves and all the Oscar echoes, I finally got to sit down and see what all the fuss was about. “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen is based on an autobiography of the same name, written by Solomon Northup himself. The film retells the amazing story of Northup and his abduction as a free man into the dark world of slavery.
Many have distinguished the film for its depiction of brutality and yes, there are some brutal scenes. I went into the film misguided with those notions, the film didn’t focus-in on the brutality of slavery rather the helplessness and despondency of it. Northup has many opportunities to escape, to run off into the southern wilderness, but where would he go? The south over-encumbered with slavers and racists.We experience slavery through the eyes of a man once free, a man not accustomed or raised as a slave. He has a wife, two children, he is happy, but his guard is down. “12 Years a Slave” makes its audience reflect on the importance of freedom as we see it stripped away from Northup.
Through the twelve years of torment Northup is unable to fight the injustices forced upon him, he is helpless. Hope is also a common theme in this film. Many characters give up hope, it is perhaps Northup’s past that compels him to keep on fighting and gives him that much needed hope. There are many high-profile actors in this film that are given very little to do. Each character plays an important role and the whole ensemble does a terrific job. Giamatti, Dano, Oduye, Pitt, and Paulson all give excellent performances in their minimal screen-time.
The real highlight of the film in the end is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayl as Solomon Northup. This movie may not have been as good without him. There are many scenes that solely rely on his facial expressions, there is a projection of melancholia when his character is on-screen even without the assistance of dialogue or setting. He is fantastic in this role.
Nyong’o and Fassbender also shine in their respective roles. Nyong’o plays Patsey, a slave who appears at the ladder half of the film. She is a punching-bag, suffering physically and emotionally throughout the film. Michael Fassbender plays plantation-owner Edwin Epps, whose profile goes beyond racism. He is a sociopath and manipulated by his wife (Sarah Paulson.)“12 Years a Slave” has some great choreography and cinematography. There are many scenes that will send shivers down your spine just by the way they are lit. There’s a difficulty in telling a twelve-year story in two hours, this is where the editing shines. The film provides artistic transitions including long dissolves, beauty shots, and Ejiofor’s emotional expressionism. (The film was shot on 35mm film.)
Hans Zimmer provides a score similar to the slower pieces in “Inception” (which he also scored), the music is appropriately grim and reflective. There isn’t much dialogue in the film, but when spoken, the dialogue is poetic and mature. John Ridley’s script is the most impressive element on display in this picture; it is benefited by McQueen’s keen-eye for detail and symbolism.The final scene of the film is just so, so touching. The story isn’t finished when the epilogue-subtitles reveal what happened to Northup. “12 Years a Slave” can serve as a haunting reminder of a dark age in history, but at its core it is a story about survival.
Northup wasn’t enslaved by the plantation owners, he was enslaved by human ignorance and barbarism. He could’ve escaped the plantation, but he would’ve found himself the target in a larger world of racism and bigotry.
Depiction of brutality is not what makes “12 Years a Slave” a good movie. What makes it a good movie is the ever-increasing sense of insecurity, the lingering helplessness and hopelessness. In the end “12 Years a Slave” shows the dark ages of United States history, but it also demonstrates the value of life and the will to keep on fighting.
Final Score: ★★★1/2