Directed by Steve McQueen
12 Years a Slave has been the talk of the town ever since it premiered at TIFF. And after watching the film trailer wondered if this movie would be the Best Picture winner this year. And it seems I was right.
12 Years tells the story of Soloman Northup. A free black man, in the 1840's, living in New York. He's an accomplished violin player and has done very well for himself in society. But when he naively goes with 2 white men to Washington while his wife and children are out of town, as they are offering him a job to play violin with them for a circus they run, he gets drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the American South.
Right there, taking a man who was free, who had no master, and had a wife, a family, a house, and a career with rights and privileges, and selling him into slavery, losing everything, that makes it so much more personal. And knowing it really happened makes it even more so. All of a sudden I'm sitting in the theatre imaging it happening to me. Or to my husband. It makes the story much more relatable. And all the more heartbreaking.
I cannot express enough how beautiful, heartbreaking and moving this film is. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup gives the performance of a lifetime. Ejiofor was subtle, and so much of the performance relied on his expressions and the emotion in his eyes. The most moving parts are when he isn't speaking at all. The performance is absolute perfection, and Ejiofor really captures Solomon's rage, anger, desperation, hope and love. Never does Solomon let himself truly fall into despair. Solomon knows where he came from, and while he may not expect to ever see his family, he remains faithful to them in hopes that one day they are reunited. In fact, the final scene of the film is one of the most heartbreaking of all. And Ejiofor carried this all so well.
The two other notable performances include Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o. Fassbender has worked with Steve McQueen on his previous 2 films. While I haven't seen either of them, I was completely taken in by his work here. He is an incredibly diverse and flexible actor, and he really takes on the crazy of Epps, the alcoholic and insane slave owner, without making him a caricature. What I love about Fassbender was the nuance of his crazy. The resting of his arm on another slaves head while talking to Northup, or walking around in just his long white shirt, or the weird little hanker-chief he wears on his head, staggering around drunk, and holding "dances" for the slaves in the middle of the night. Fassbender is able to pull this off without being over the top crazy, and becoming a funny/evil character rather than a bone-chilling one.
Lupita Nyong'o, a complete newcomer and this being her first feature film, is dazzling. She as Patsey, the tortured and yet a little too loved slave of Epps, is portrayed with such grace and yet such heartbreak. Patsey is the character we feel the most for, as she does not receive a happy ending. Nyong'o, while her role was quite small, give quite an impact on the film overall. She was outstanding, and completely deserved her Oscar. As well, Sarah Paulson as Epp's wife, was completely chilling and outstanding. Other small but notable roles include Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt.
Aside from all the acting, the story was well told, and at times, we extremely uncomfortable, in a way that I loved. As with Schindler's List, there were many scenes that were a little uncomfortable, and a little horrific. The camera frequently lingered a little longer than we're comfortable with on certain moments. And while I didn't enjoy any of these moments, and once or twice just really wanted the camera to turn away, I loved what it did for the film, and the message. Slavery and the treatment of slaves should not be something we stay within our comfort zone for. It was cruel, and sometimes extremely brutal. And while experiencing such subject matter, we should be pushed out of comfort. When we see a man hanging, with only the tips of his toes slipping around in the mud as the only way to keep from choking, we shouldn't just think "hmm, that sucks". And McQueen didn't do that. We had an uncomfortably long time looking at this, with slave children running around, laughing in the background, white women looking from the window, and a fellow slave giving him a sip of water, but otherwise they're going about their business, Northup slipping around in the mud until sundown. It went on for a long time, and I was practically begging for it to end. For me it was only a minute or two. For Soloman Northup, it was all day. We see whippings in this film, lasting longer than we're used to in film, Patsey receiving upwards of 20 lashes. And so on. This, for me, is another thing that made this film more powerful, was how uncomfortable it was. Which, for me, makes it much more of a great movie than any other slavery film made.
This film is probably the most deserved win in many years. It's a hard look at the stain on America's past (though slavery is definitely a stain on every single country). The film is utterly moving, though hard to watch. The performances were fantastic and the cinematography gorgeous (though some credit definitely goes to the stunning Louisiana background). Hans Zimmer music is moving, and perfectly emotes the heartbreak and hope we are supposed to simultaneously feel. While the film definitely deserved more nominations and wins than it received, 12 Years A Slave is a fantastic film, and one that will age well and place relatively high on overall winner lists, even if it's one I don't need to visit again for a long time.
Emotional Connection- 8/10
Overall Enjoyment- 9/10
Overall Package- 9/10