Awards SeasonFilmReview

Powerful, Yet Cringeworthy 12 Years A Slave Is A Must-See

James Canellos ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

12 Years A Slave follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor – learn to pronounce that name, it’s going to be said a lot during awards season), a talented violinist and well educated free man residing in a pre-civil war New York with his family. Life is good Solomon until he is deceived and drugged by two men and sold into slavery. He is a man who has known nothing but equal rights and now must downgrade his expectations of fairness in order to survive.

Director Steve McQueen, has made two movies about men being prisoners to their own desires and use their bodies for these wants (Michael Fassbender in Hunger and Shame). But this is the first time we’re seeing a character who is transformed into a prisoner because of his own body.

Benedict Cumberbatch and in 12 Years A Slave.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

McQueen and Ejiofor come together to make the best film about one of America’s greatest atrocities. Ejiofor uses his wide orb like eyes to mirror the determination, fear and courage that Northup did have to endure. He carries the film on his shoulders with grace and doesn’t let go until the screen fades to black. This is by far the performance of his life and could very well be the one that gets him his first Academy Award.

That’s not to say everybody isn’t good, a lot of recognizable names show up in this film, such as Taran Killam, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch (seriously this guy’s everywhere), and Brad Pitt. These actors all play such against type roles with such nonchalance that you forget their other film personas and forget that they’re even acting. They all make brief appearances in the film but each is so well defined through John Ridley’s perfectly balanced script. Ridley knows exactly how to balance over the top dehumanization and not melodramatic kindness.

Sadly there is more sadism in the film that is delivered with intense malevolence by Michael Fassbender (McQueen’s go-to guy) as Edwin Epps, a man who is so deranged that he believes slavery is justified by God himself. Fassbender is the rare screen villain who you want to see more of just because he elevates every scene, but you regret his presence and wish you didn’t witness his actions.

Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) is no better then her husband. The way she treats Edwin’s number one cotton picker, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who is also the victim to Edwin’s affection, is just as despicable. Nyong’o gives such a heart wrenching performance, like Ejiofor she barely has to say a word to wring out all the sorrow from the audience. Through compassionate music by Hans Zimmer and unrelenting editing by Joe Walker these scenes are made all the more compelling by doing so little.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

McQueen does such a fine job leading these actors in the right direction but never forgets about the objective: that there will never be a resolution to this evil. As the ending shows, there is no way of making up for anything, there is no victory in this story only more melancholy for those who aren’t Solomon. McQueen never lets you forget about those who weren’t in Solomon’s position.

McQueen is known for his beautiful long takes and as a rising director in Hollywood he does something very rare, he holds back on his trademark. He only uses an extreme long take three times as opposed to the numerous ones he had in Shame and Hunger. Each one gets more uncomfortable and painful. The cinematography used to show Solomon’s torture in one scene in particular is so simple, yet so cringeworthy- just look at the extras in the background that make the scene. In a later scene of abuse the camera doesn’t cut for a good three minutes and you just wish it would, but McQueen knows that this a scene that demands your full attention. Fassbender’s face in that scene is worthy of an Oscar alone, capturing the perfect fusion of shame and ferocity.

Yes, this film sounds like a major downer. It’s not the feel good film of anything. Nonetheless it is one that will go for your soul and will refuse to let go. 12 Years A Slave will be expanding to more theaters this weekend and it’s one that earns your respect through Ejiofor’s eyes, McQeen’s direction, Ridley’s words, and Fassbender’s scowl. I strongly recommend you to go see the best film of 2013.

Grade: A+

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3 Comments

  1. Insightful review of a disturbing theme.Have not seen the movie yet,but am a big fan of McQueen and am anxious to see his most ambitious film.

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