Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodward, and Brad Pitt
Written By: John Ridley (Based on the novel Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup)
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Solomon Northup was a free black man working as a musician in Saratoga, New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. Towards the end of 12 Years a Slave, Brad Pitt’s character tells Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), “You’re story – it is amazing and in no good way.” The same can be said for 12 Years a Slave – it is an amazing movie and in no good way. This is a superb piece of filmmaking but also incredibly difficult and harrowing to watch. Featuring one of the most realistic portrayals of American slavery ever put on film, 12 Years a Slave isn’t just a necessary viewing experience, it’s also one of the best films of the year.
Quentin Tarantino managed to turn this subject matter into a crowd-pleaser with last year’s Django Unchained by depicting a revenge fantasy in which a slave got even with his masters. Aside from a few instances of the educated Northup outwitting his captors, do not expect anything in the way of satisfactory retribution. As good as Django Unchained was, the much more serious, complex and unflinching approach that this film takes, makes 12 Years a Slave one of the most definitive films about slavery ever made. Whatever the polar opposite of escapist entertainment would be – this is it – and one might even call it the feel-bad movie of the year. However, it’s practically a moral obligation to see this factual account of one of the most horrific chapters in American history.
The abuses which the slaves endure include beatings, hangings and rape, but these depictions are more disturbing and upsetting than they are graphically violent. Even worse than the physical abuse might be the dehumanizing of these men and women who were bought, sold, and herded along like cattle. Families would be split up with as little regard as if one were separating puppies from a litter. To console a sobbing mother whose children have just been taken from her, her master tells her “There, there. You’re children will be forgotten in no time.”
The acting is fantastic across the board, led by a powerful performance from Ejiofor as Northup. Northup is an intelligent family man who must hide his ability to read & write, and his identity as a free man in order to survive. But as he tells a fellow slave, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” This is a film that creates an intensely suspenseful sequence out of a man trying to carve a pen and write a letter. The fact that an edge-of-your-seat moment could come from such a mundane detail, and not a car chase or shoot-out, speaks to this film’s masterful storytelling. Ejiofor deserves a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Northup, both in his ability to convey emotion and the even more difficult task of hiding it.
A chockfull of Oscar nominees/winners show up in supporting roles, with each getting a chance to shine in their respective scenes. Paul Giamatti plays an evil slave trader who describes his “product” by weight as if he were selling slabs of meat at a butchery. Paul Dano is outstanding as a malicious, yet cowardly slave overseer. The closest a master comes to getting their comeuppance involves a scene between Dano’s character and Northup, and it’s one of the few moments where you’ll breathe a sigh of relief. Benedict Cumberbatch has an interesting role as a slave owner who doesn’t seem like all that bad of a guy… aside from the fact that he owns slaves. He even takes a somewhat protective stance over Northup’s well-being. The nature of this character goes to show that not all of the masters reveled in the mistreatment of their servants, but for some this is just how the world works – white men own black men. But in a way, Cumberbatch’s acceptance of this lifestyle makes him no better than any of the more spiteful slave owners.
The most malevolent character in the film by far is slave master Edwin Epps as played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender’s depiction of pure evil should secure him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Epps is a religious man who has deluded himself into thinking that what he’s doing is righteous, as owning slaves is god’s will. He reads a passage from the bible describing a man’s right to own property, to which he tells the slaves, “Property, that means you.” Epps is a man who whips his slaves for what he considers to be “sins” (such as not picking enough cotton), and truly believes that he is a good man doing god’s work. Fassbender brilliantly displays a mix of sociopathy and a warped mindset, making him one of the most repulsive screen characters in quite some time.
It’s a bit disconcerting when Brad Pitt appears towards the end of the film, in an extended cameo as a kindhearted Canadian carpenter. It’s a pivotal role, but when the biggest movie star in the world shows up in a film of such an uncompromisingly dark reality, it’s somewhat distracting. Pitt serves as a producer on the film and funnily enough plays one of the only virtuous white characters in the movie, in addition to being something of a hero. Pitt and Fassbender share a standout scene where they argue about what the law says versus what’s morally correct. Essentially, just because it was one’s legal right to own slaves, doesn’t make it right.
With exquisite acting and directing, 12 Years a Slave is first-rate on so many levels in addition to telling a fascinating, yet appalling story. Year in and year out, so many movies come and go without leaving any sort of impact, even if they do manage to entertain. On both a human and psychological level, here’s an unforgettable film that gives you a lot to think about. 12 Years a Slave isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s an important film to see.