Slavery is a topic that has been covered in television, books and movies for many years, but somehow never quite like with 12 Years A Slave, a uniquely personal movie about one of America’s darkest and most shameful times. Director Steve McQueen (Shame) wanted this movie made, based on the real life memoirs of Solomon Northrup, and he was finally able to make it a reality.
Based on real life memoirs, 12 Years A Slave tells the story of a free black man named Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was deceived from his New York home, and sold into slavery under false pretenses. The following 12 years, portrayed on screen, tell the story of his journey through America’s darkest time, encountering a number of slave owners and sellers including the acting talents of Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender,
Where to start. 12 Years A Slave was an experience. As the movie begins we get a small sense of happiness as we witness a few minutes in the extremely happy life of Solomon Northrup. Then all of a sudden, we are watching one man’s personal hell unfold before our eyes. I suppose this represents the shock that the real life Mr. Northrup must have felt, and it certainly holds impact for the audience. He is beaten viciously within minutes, and we begin to understand how this story is going to go.
The first thing that needs to be mentioned is the acting and the cast that Steve McQueen was able to put together for this film. Of course the bulk of the screen time is taken up by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and rightfully so, as this is Solomon’s story. Ejiofor is absolutely incredible, displaying despair and great strength with a subtlety that is nearly perfect. It is a powerhouse performance that will surely result in an Oscar nomination.
But Ejiofor is not the only one on show here. The amazing thing is that so many huge names have relatively tiny roles in terms of screen time, although impactful to the story. Some standouts are Paul Dano as an unbearable slave driver, and Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave owner with a heart. However, the one performance that is right up there with Ejiofor is that of Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a complicated, hard slave owner who is as close to a monster as a human can be. Fassbender is incredible and it is probably his best performance yet, next to McQueen’s other work, Shame. If he isn’t highly considered for Best Supporting Actor it will be a travesty.
The thing about these characters, which is a testament to screenwriter, John Ridley, McQueen and of course the real Solomon Northrup’s memoirs, is that they are incredibly complex. I won’t describe each in turn, but to take Fassbender’s ‘Epps’ as an example, he is clearly a monster, who drives his slaves to near death and beats them viciously for failure. However, there is so much more to him than that. As the story unfolds we begin to sense his troubles, his strange moments of weakness and soft nature and we realize that even a monster such as himself is a product of this terrible time.
The film’s other great strength, is the slow, powerful and realistic manner with which it presents it’s material. It could just pummel us with countless scenes of brutality and gory violence, however that would be too easy. That is what most films do, and 12 Years A Slave is not most films. It has it’s moments of brutal violence, which are sufficiently unwatchable. But where the impact is really felt is in it’s small moments of despair. A conversation. A hopeful moment leading to another unbearable disappointment. A slave woman begging Solomon to kill her and end her misery. These moments are so real and without them the film would not be nearly as effective.
In terms of the technical stuff, that is as fantastic as it needs to be. There are some wonderful shots, some just as visual treats and some designed to emphasize a particular emotion or moment. Certain shots do linger a little too long, to the point of being a little over the top, but in general McQueen nails it. There are times when you just wish that you didn’t have to see what you were seeing any longer, and I mean that in a good way.
I have seen a lot of films that tough on this dark topic, but none with quite the detail and impact of 12 Years A Slave. With a career making performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an incredible supporting cast and near perfect storytelling, this is sure fire bet for at least a couple Oscars in my mind. Anything less will be an injustice.