Experiencing problems in your life? Having trouble at work? Unlucky in love? Watch Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, and you’ll have an entirely different perspective on what it means to endure tough times. McQueen’s gut-wrenching rendering of Solomon Northup’s autobiography is one of the most unflinching looks at slavery ever committed to film, and a monumental performance from lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor commands our attention even as we desperately try to look away.
The acting from the large ensemble cast is stellar all around, but Ejiofor (who you may recognized from roles in Serenity, Children of Men, American Gangster, and more) gives a performance that will be talked about for years to come. He plays Solomon Northup, a violin-playing family man who lives in the north in 1841. He and his family are free, well-off American citizens, but Solomon is quickly kidnapped and sold into slavery. Despite his protests that he’s a free man, no one believes him; he’s beaten, given the new name of “Platt,” and transferred around to various slave owners who put his violin skills to use at parties in their lavish plantations.
Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael K. Williams, Paul Dano, and a host of other veteran actors slide through the film with varying degrees of memorability, but it’s Michael Fassbender who truly leaves an impression as the cruel “slave breaker” Edwin Epps. His icy stare is nearly as frightening as his behavior toward his slaves, and his jealous wife (played by Sarah Paulson) is even more savage than he is. She takes out her hostility on a slave named Patsey (heartbreakingly rendered by Lupita Nyong’o), who has become the object of her husband’s twisted affection, and refuses to provide even a bar of soap with which Patsey can clean herself.
This is not an easy film to watch. There are scenes of rape, torture, hangings, and the worst on-screen beatings since The Passion of the Christ. You can almost sense McQueen watching you watch his movie, and every time a moment comes along when things get especially difficult to stomach, he dials it up instead of letting us off the hook. It’s as if he can hear the audience squeamishly thinking, “OK, we get it,” and he responds, “No, you don’t f*cking ‘get it.’ Not yet. But I’m going to make you watch until you come close to understanding what these people went through.” The misguided hatred the slave owners felt is palpable in each thwack of the paddle and each crack of the whip.
One of the toughest scenes to watch involves Northup hanging from a noose with his toes barely touching the ground; he hangs there for hours, forced to keep his body as taut as possible or die from asphyxiation. All around, slaves quietly go about their business, never coming over to help him lest they be treated to a similar torture themselves. Later, in one impressive but soul-crushing long take, Northup is handed a whip and forced at gunpoint to repeatedly lash Patsey because Epps doesn’t want to do it himself. Like the film as a whole, the scene is brutal both emotionally and physically.
But unlike McQueen’s previous film, the sex-addiction drama Shame, the director is actually invested in the fate of his protagonist this time, and Ejiofor’s potent mix of dignity and despair gives us something to hold on to when – if played by any other actor – we may have become numb to the barbarity of it all. Ejiofor is tremendous, and while his final cathartic on-screen moments feel a bit rushed due to John Ridley’s screenplay, the weight of what his character has experienced all comes crashing down when he’s (spoiler alert for real life historical events) reunited with his family once again. I apologize if that spoiled anything, but it’s probably good for you to know that there is a somewhat “happy” ending in such an otherwise bleak film.
Like this month’s Gravity, Captain Phillips, and All is Lost, 12 Years A Slave is a story of survival. It’s a character study of one man’s unfathomable trip through hell and back, and a devastating portrait of slavery that may never be topped in terms of realism or sheer brutality. The film adds a necessary layer of humanity to a terrifying true story as we see Solomon Northup struggle with his circumstances, and ultimately it becomes about more than simply enduring the status quo. “I don’t want to survive,” Solomon says to a fellow captive. “I want to live.” Until next time…
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