“12 Years a Slave” Movie Review


     Director Steve McQueen's new film "12 Years a Slave" chronicles the real life ordeal suffered by Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York, who in 1841 was abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War United States. McQueen reunites with his "Shame" star Michael Fassbender, playing the evil slave owner Edwin Epps, who combined with a ground breaking performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup makes "12 Years a Slave" not only a sure fire Oscar Contender, but also perhaps one of the most important films of our time. To watch McQueen's film isn't for the purpose of traditional entertainment, but rather a lesson for all of us about a time in our country we sometimes mention but would rather pretend doesn't exist. To think as a civilized people we once devalued human life to such an extent as to refer to someone as "property" is truly a sickening thought. Whereas Quentin Tarantino explored this subject last year with "Django Unchained", McQueen's film doesn't share any of the themes displayed in "Django" such as revenge or redemption. In fact, there is nothing positive presented in "12 Years a Slave", which is a clear reflection of what the truth was behind slavery.

     Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" may be the closest work that can match the overall tone and raw power of "12 Years a Slave". Both set out to document the unspeakable horror of their subject matter, but the story of Oscar Schindler at least ended with a positive note about a man who successfully saved hundreds of people from certain death. There is no such redemption in "12 Years a Slave", as McQueen clearly holds nothing back as he tells Northup's agonizing ordeal. McQueen stages several notable scenes in the film where you can practically smell the vile and ignorant stench emanating from the screen as the filmmakers consistently depict the deplorable and horrific acts committed by the rancid collection of slave owners Northup encountered.

     As a successful and accomplished musician, Northup was accustomed to a relatively normal existence in upstate New York. He was able to support a wife and two young children with his performances and seemed willing to take any number of musical opportunities in order to make extra money. One night, Northup is approached by two men who offer him one of those opportunities and after the gig, he is not only paid handsomely, but is also invited to a special social gathering. A night of excessive drinking and partying leads to his kidnapping and when he awakens, he finds himself in something akin to a prison cell with his arms and legs chained to the ground.

     Within days, Northup is transported to the Deep South and sold in a slave auction run in the most uncomfortable, yet seemingly normal to those attending, manner possible with each person stripped naked and lined up as if they were goods in a store rather than people. The auctioneer, played in a purely despicable manner by Paul Giamatti, startles the audience in a way that sets the tone for what's to come. Northup, sold under the name Platt, is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and brought to his plantation where he is immediately immersed into a hellish life of manual labor, torture, mistreatment, and a lingering feeling of utter dread. Some films have dared to depict this type of life in smaller doses, but none have been audacious enough to recreate what really happened to these people at this level of intensity.  As Northup puts it, he is simply trying to survive.

     From the moment Paul Dano's character, Tibeats, introduces himself as the "overseer" of Northup and several other new slaves, I was quite literally stunned. Tibeats gleefully begins singing a one verse song laced mostly with racial slurs over and over again which McQueen uses as a voice over accompanying a montage of scenes showing the many atrocities that occurred on any given day. The scene seems to go on for nearly ten minutes, consistently infused with Tibeats repetitive vitriol. A very uncomfortable sequence with the worst yet to come.

     After an incident leaves Northup near death at the hands of one of Ford's henchmen, he is sold to notorious slave owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender), who is said to be known for his ability to "break slaves". From the beginning of the scenes on Epps plantation, it is clear he excels not only in the physical torture that is commonplace at this point in the film, but also extreme mental cruelty as well. The conflict between Northup and Epps sends this story into a dark place in our history that I feel most would rather was never explored within this medium, but is nonetheless necessary to help heal past wounds. The performances by Ejiofor and Fassbender in the third act are by far the best I've seen so far this year and both should see nominations for Best Actor and Supporting Actor respectively.

     In addition, Lupita Nyong'o's chilling performance as Patsey, a slave who endures a disturbing relationship with Epps, is one I will never forget. There are scenes involving her character which are so excruciating, they are virtually unbearable. I haven't observed acting at this high of a level by a supporting player in any film this year, as these roles normally blossom into that of a main character. Her impact can't be understated.  Brad Pitt’s appearance in the film is minimal, but nevertheless pivotal.

     Regardless of how "12 Years a Slave" performs during awards season, the film should be looked at for both it's historical value as well as the fact it is a monumental achievement. Movies function primarily as a form of entertainment and are regularly known, even those claiming to be based on a true story, to take liberties when it comes to what is actually factual. McQueen's film is on the other end of the spectrum, giving the whole truth whether you choose to believe it or not. While some Oscar voters may lean toward rewarding a film that channels more of a feel good story, "12 Years a Slave" will haunt our thoughts years from now and will always serve as a powerful reminder of why race relations remain at a boiling point, even today. Often times, films are produced with the intent of sending a message or making a statement.  I don’t believe McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley (based on Northup’s novel) set out to make that type of film, instead opting to create a genuine experience with an unmatched level of authenticity. GRADE: A