“All you ever did was wreck me”
Starting off a review of 12 Years a Slave with lyrics from Miley Cyrus may seem counter-intuitive; it is certainly not done to minimize this powerful movie. But it seemed apropos as when I left the movie theater after my screening, I felt like I had been hit by a wrecking ball. This film is tough to watch and I was emotionally drained when it was over. That is a compliment – the actors and director tell such a compelling story that you cannot help but be affected by it. It is a movie that should be seen, even if it is a challenge. All of the praise that this film has received is totally warranted.
12 Years a Slave is the adaptation of a true story: Solomon Northrup is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY. A talented musician, Solomon is approached by two men who offer him a lucrative deal playing music in a traveling show. He accepts the deal and accompanies them to Washington DC. While there, the two men drug Solomon and sell him into slavery; he awakens to find himself chained with no memory of how he got there. His protests that he is indeed a free man fall on deaf ears. And so beings Solomon’s nightmare of being enslaved for 12 years, with his family having absolutely no idea what happened to him and having no way to prove who he is. In an instant, he is reduced to a piece of property. What follows is an honest and brutal depiction of the life of the slave.
12 Years a Slave is far from the first movie to tackle to issue of racism and slavery; however, most recent depictions of the institution have focused more slavery from the point of view of the white men who are debating its morality. Lincoln was a very good film, but it paid more attention to the process of passing the 13th Amendment than on the people who would actually be affected by it. That is a valid story, but it isn’t the full story. By telling Solomon’s story, 12 Years a Slave provides an unflinching look at what many had to endure and why such legislation was needed. In telling one man’s story, it is telling the story of thousands of others who suffered. Many films about slavery allude to inhumanity and cruelty that many had to endure but back away from depicting the true savagery. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from the truth – it isn’t violence for violence’s sake, but a necessary look at a dark chapter of our history. I am normally pretty unflappable, but there came a point in the film where I simply had to look away from what I was seeing. I closed my eyes for a few seconds to compose myself, tears streaming down my face. I’m not an idiot – I knew slavery was an unspeakable horror for many – but actually seeing a recreation of it that felt so authentic was just too much for me. I was far from the only person sobbing in the theater.
Solomon’s story in and of itself is captivating tale, but the reason that it resonated so much with me was because of the impeccable acting in 12 Years a Slave. The cast was uniformly incredible, anchored by an amazing performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. His transformation in this film is a revelation, as he changes from a happy family man to someone who is simply enduring, with dwindling hope that he will ever escape his imprisonment. Ejiofor is why this film works so well; you would sympathize with Solomon’s plight regardless, but Ejiofor makes Solomon’s story truly come alive. More importantly, he makes it all real. It is such an elegant and nuanced performance that it is really beautiful to watch. He can convey so many emotions without speaking a word.
Michael Fassbender is also unsurprisingly outstanding as slave owner Edwin Epps. Much of the worst brutality that befalls Solomon and the other slaves occurs on his plantation. It would be easy to let Epps become a one dimensional character, the epitome of evil, but that would be lazy filmmaking. Fassbender gives Epps depth and makes him believable. Epps is much harder to dismiss because of the intensity that Fassbender brings to the table. He fully commits to bring this unspeakable human being to life. It speaks to just how good Ejiofor is that Fassbender doesn’t steal this movie.
The film also shows the spectrum of slave owners – as Master Ford, Benedict Cumberbatch is not necessarily a bad man, but a weak one. He prides himself on the kindness that he shows his slaves and he certainly does not relish in his role of master like Epps does. But he is still a slave owner and when faced with Solomon, a man that is clearly educated and was not raised in slavery, he runs from the truth. He may try to be more humane than most – he expresses sympathy for a mother being ripped from her children – but he is not willing to rock the boat and challenge the structure of the South. The best he is willing to do is to make it a little less unpleasant.
Also worthy of singling out is relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (this is her first feature film). As Patsey, a slave that has caught the eye of Epps, she gives a star making performance. While being an object of lust of the slave owner may garner her some special treatment, it also makes her a target for the wrath of Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson). In a film full of pain and suffering, her character may suffer the most. It is a haunting performance that leaves its mark on you.
Some other thoughts:
- I have not yet read the book that the film is based on, so I cannot speak to how loyal of an adaption this is. It’s now on my list, though.
- Don’t let the commercials fool you – Brad Pitt is only in this movie for ten minutes or so. He doesn’t really disappear into the role – he’s a good actor, but his face is just too familiar – but I was thankful when he showed up, if for no other reason than it provided a much needed break from “reality.” Plus there is no way that Pitt was standing for this inhumanity.
- About halfway through the film, I was rooting for Jamie Foxx to show up and bring some much needed vengeance into the film. Sadly, the real story doesn’t provide the kind of closure that Quentin Tarantino can provide.
- Having grown up a stone’s throw from Saratoga, I immediately thought of Congress Park during the scenes in the city. I don’t know if that was where they were actually going for, or if I was projecting, but that was the first thing that came to mind.
- My one complaint about the film – not enough Michael K. Williams (Omar, The Wire). He only had a bit part, but I am always happy to see him.
- I was shocked that there were people who wouldn’t stop talking in a movie like this. I have no idea why they were even in this movie if they didn’t want to see it; if you want to be an a**hole, go across the hall and go see Bad Grandpa where you’ll be less of a distraction.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor is now rumored to be under consideration for the new Star Wars film.
- This is clearly a difficult movie to market, as evidenced by the random assortment of trailers that preceded the film. Usually trailers are selected to compliment the interests of the assumed audience, but based on the hodgepodge of ads that they selected I don’t think that they have a clear idea of who exactly is going to see this film.
- Paul Giamatti also has a small part in this film as a slave trader. Giamatti makes the most of his limited screen time.
- On my way home from the theater I had to stop and get myself a treat just to cheer myself up a bit after watching such an emotionally devastating feature. Probably not the best way to kick off my weekend, but I have no regrets.
I have some very minor complaints about 12 Years a Slave – there were some scenes that I’m not sure why director McQueen chose to include – but they don’t detract in any way from the magnificence of this film. I don’t see how this film will not be a prominent player come Oscar time; it is so beautifully acted and filmed that it would be a travesty if the movie wasn’t recognized with many nominations. 12 Years a Slave is definitely the newest member of my YOWO club; it was powerful and affecting and I have absolutely no interest in putting myself through that emotional wringer ever again. It is because it is so challenging to watch that I think everyone should see it. If a movie can make me tear up when I’m writing the review, it is clearly doing something right. 12 Years a Slave forces us to suffer for two hours so that we can have some small glimpse into the lifetime of suffering that so many had to endure simply because of the color of their skin. It’s been almost a week since I saw 12 Years a Slave and yet I can’t stop thinking about it and discussing it. This is a film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater and should be required viewing for everyone.