MOVIE REVIEW: ’12 Years A Slave’


Film: 12 Years A Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Screenplay by: John Ridley
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt

“I don’t want to survive,” Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup tells a fellow slave shortly after being abducted and sold into slavery. “I want to live.” But for 12 years, he had no choice. 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing, heartbreaking, and surprisingly inspiring story about survival, as that’s all Northup could do in the hopes of returning home to see his family again.

Solomon Northup was a free black man living in New York in 1841. He was an educated (the slave owners use the word “learned”) man — a violinist, traveler and writer (this movie is based on a book he wrote in 1853). But after a night out with a couple of white artists, he finds himself chained up in a dungeon, getting a paddle broken over him by a white man who demands he “admit” he’s a slave. And all the while, he’s trying to piece together the events that brought him to this hellish place. This is a brutal scene, but merely a glimpse at what’s to come.

Working again with Hunger and Shame Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the film is shot in a similar fashion to Director Steve McQueen’s previous films, despite working with a much larger story. McQueen and Bobbitt understand the power of the moving image. Their style assures that every shot is used to its maximum impact, never inserting a cut when one isn’t needed. The film is filled with long, often static, intimate takes that allow the story to wash over you.

Paul Giamatti has a small appearance in the film as a slave trader who cleans up Northup and a dozen or so other slaves before bringing them to an auction. The fast-talking Giamatti pitches and prices each slave for sale as a brilliant tracking shot brings you from room to room to room, simultaneously capturing these negotiations and the inner terror of the slaves as several of them are about to be separated from their families and sold to a number of different rich white men.

Northup winds up in the hands of Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, who is in roughly a thousand other movies this year). Northup calls Ford “a good man, considering the circumstances.” Ford almost immediately recognizes Northup’s talents and accepts his input on how the slaves can work more efficiently.

“If you allow yourself to be overcome by sorrow, you will drown in it,” Northup tells a female slave who cries incessantly after being separated from her children. He knows they could have it much worse. But it isn’t long before Northup gets into a scuffle with Ford’s “overseer,” a despicable man played by Paul Dano, clearly threatened by Ford’s trust in Northup.

Northup’s punishment is being hung from a tree just high enough so his toes can barely reach the ground. After focusing on his feet for a few minutes, Bobbitt sets the camera up for a wide shot where we can see plenty of people, both white and black, walking around behind the hanging slave but no one willing to help. Northup is left gasping for air while his toes continue to shuffle and squish around in the muddy soil.

This shot goes on for what feels like an eternity before Ford comes along and cuts him down. But Ford is now forced, for Northup’s own safety, to sell him to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps: a man without an ounce of good in his entire body and one of the most veritably frightening characters to come along in recent years.

Ejiofor is a revelation as Northup, a man who is the most intelligent person in the entire film but finds it safer to do and say as little as possible. He pretends not to know how to read or write and pretends he hasn’t traveled to all the places he’s seen. But the film’s most crushing performance comes from virtually unknown Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, who Epps treats as his personal play toy and draws the scorn of Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson).

While McQueen continues to collaborate with the likes of Fassbender and Bobbitt, this is his first time working with composer Hans Zimmer. His score alternates between the use of tribal drum beats and the subtle notes of a cello. There’s a shot late in the film where the camera focuses on Ejiofor’s face. Half teary-eyed, he gazes directly into the camera (or perhaps our soul) for a close-up that lasts several seconds. We have no idea what he’s thinking, but the tones coming from Zimmer’s score are somehow simultaneously bright and melancholy and I was left feeling hopeful and uplifted.

But McQueen knows not to overuse the musical cues as the film’s natural sounds are even more impactful. The squishing of the mud, the rattling of the chains. The scene you’re going to hear everyone talking about comes when an enraged Epps completely strips Patsey and ties her up to the post, subjecting her to a countless number of lashes. Skin ripping and blood splashing with each lash, the sound of leather meeting human tissue is just as piercing even when the camera is pointed away from Patsey’s frail frame.

The film does not paint the white man as the ultimate villain. McQueen passes no judgement upon them. The film’s white characters range from barbaric to well-intentioned to downright saint-like. Some of them were able to overcome a generation of ignorance. Others were not. And the fact that a movie like Fruitvale Station can arrive in the same year as 12 Years a Slave should serve as a reminder that while many things have changed, many things have not.

If Hunger was a solid “here’s what I can do” sort of debut feature and Shame announced McQueen as a daring independent voice, then 12 Years a Slave establishes him as a true cinematic powerhouse — an “event film” sort of director, if you will. Because when you make a statement this bold, there’s no turning back.

Grade: A
Review written by: Kevin Blumeyer

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