12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave is based on the Extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free blackman from Saratoga, New York. Solomon is the father of two children, and has a loving wife, and is an exceptional violist. On what seems to be a normal afternoon Solomon’s friend introduces him to two travelers by the names Brown and Hamilton who claim they work in a circus-like show. They ask Solomon to accompany them to Washington D.C and in return they will give him a large sum of money. When they arrive in Washington, Solomon receives many drinks from Brown and Hamilton, and passes out. Solomon awakens in a dark room chained up with shackles around his wrist and ankles.
Solomon tries to explain that he was wrongfully sold into slavery but he receives harsh punishment every time he shows any sign of intelligence. Solomon is transported to a location and is auctioned off to reasonable plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Solomon starts off well at the plantation but after strings of events he his sold to an owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who’s known for his strict policies. Solomon befriends a slave named Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) who happens to be the interest of Epps, despite the extreme jealousy of his wife Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson). Solomon’s life as a slave is an ongoing struggle to survive, he learns that cooperation will get him nowhere, and that he has to sacrifice his dignity if he wants to make it back to his family. As the emotional and physical abuse continue to grow Solomon is on the brink of losing everything he stands for, until the day he meets a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) by chance, which will forever alter his life.
The moment I walked out of the theaters I knew that I watched a truly important film, and the best film I saw all year. I’ve talked with a few people who did not like the film. Initially, I was confused by how someone could not like it, but they explained that it was too depressing to watch, and they did not like witnessing the treatment of humans in the film. I agree with them that can be more than enough reason for someone to never want to watch this again, however I found beauty in the film. I was astonished by Solomon’s story and surprised that I’ve never heard about it. I understand that this is only one man’s story, and unfortunately this happened to thousands of humans. It’s sad to think a lot of them will have died never seeing their families again, and will never have their stories told like Solomon. Hats off to the incredible direction by Steve McQueen who lost out to Alfonso Cuaron in this category of the Academy Awards. The film itself could have been made by a lot of accomplished directors, but the overall impact would not have been the same. McQueen assembles a quality cast with interesting ways of developing characters that may not have been apparent through another director’s depiction.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a strong performance as Solomon or better known by his slave name Platt. The use of long takes allow for Solomon’s despair to immensely resonate within the film. Through his quiet moments alone or during agonizing pain, his eyes bring us into what he is experiencing. He learns early on that speaking out can place him in the most horrifying situations, most notably a scene where he is hanging with a noose around his neck and his toes are barely reaching the muddy ground keeping him alive. In contrast to Ejiofor’s character, Fassbender gives an equally strong performance, but extremely active. Edwin Epps personality is borderline psycho. In one instance he blamed the slaves for God’s plague that has came to his crops. Lupita Nyong’o earned an Oscar for her debut role as Patsy. Nyong’o displays extreme talent here with a complex character, who has to deal with being a sexual object to Epps, and picking 500 pounds of cotton per day. Sarah Paulson played well as Mrs. Epps; She did not have that big of a role but played an important piece of Edwin Epps unmoral look on relationships. The time spent on screen displayed her gripe towards slaves, especially Patsy, which appears reasonable at first, but her husband should receive the harsh after effects. There is a smaller role from Benedict Cumberbatch who was solid as a classier Slave owner. Paul Dano gives a great performance here, utilizing his wide range of vocal abilities and passion to great effect. Minor roles from Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt.
The Cinematography of the deep south us beautiful. Sean Bobbit (Hunger, Shame, The Place Beyond The Pines) is able to turn these gritty locations and unforgiving land into pure beauty through simplicity. The subject matter of the film is by no means beautiful but the land it takes place in is completely unique in comparison to upstate New York. There is a sequence of shots of the stunning landscape that initially feel like the film wants to try and pluck this beautiful land into the film. However this sequence promotes the basic notion of film-making that each shot should move the story forward, and when you see what it leads to, it will surely startle most people. In terms of the lighting, my favorite moment in the film is when Epps takes Solomon out during the night and questions him. Their faces are lit by the fire inside the lantern which creates a realistic feel, and in the background you can see a blue hue covering the barn, which lets you know the moon is out. Overall I loved how these simple lightening techniques add so much depth to the scenes.
The film is scored by the acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer. The score itself is beautiful, however it replays slightly different throughout the film when it’s associated with Solomon. On first viewing, this is not a problem at all but after seeing it for a third time it becomes a little redundant but nonetheless remains beautiful. Another aspect of the film I love is the use of sound. The surrounding area was full of life ranging from birds, to crickets, and another insects, which brings life to the environment. The best part about that is how seemingly it fits into film, I don’t know whether it was added in for effect, or simply on location ambiance.
As great of a film 12 Years a Slave is, like most films it has minor flaws. They do not in anyway ruin the quality of the film, but could have been shown better. Firstly, it was hard to figure out how many years have gone past even though the title of the film reveals the final time. Secondly, it did well to show the extreme heat in the south, through sweat, and slaves passing out, but it was hard to ‘feel’ that heat. Do the Right Thing utilized a tinted lens to fabricate the idea of how hot it was, while I think that would have diminished 12 Years A Slave’s quality it would have been interesting to see if they could have managed the heat differently. It may have been because the film was released in the fall, where it’s chilly outside.
12 Years a Slave is a harrowing look at one of the darkest moments in America’s history. Director Steve McQueen and the rest of the production crew put all their efforts into making this realistic as possible, earning them three Oscars. The film is unrelenting from start to finish when violence occurs, making it hard to watch for many people. Slavery is always a tough subject to tackle but this collective group succeeds in bringing Solomon’s story justice and one to remember for many years.
Rating: ★★★★★ / ★★★★★
Dir. Steve McQueen
IMDb 8.3/10 – Rotten Tomatoes 96%
Won Academy Award – Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress
Nominated 9 Academy Awards
Won Golden Globe – Best Picture
Won BAFTA – Best Film, Best Actor
Won 5 Independent Spirit Awards
Won LAFCA Best Supporting Actress
Won NYFCC – Best Director
“No sin! There is no sin! A man does how he pleases with his property. “