Of all the 2013 films I have watched and will watch, I doubt there is one that will leave a greater lasting impression than 12 Years a Slave, the remarkable, and apparently very accurate true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery (no prizes for guessing how long). It’s one of the most brutal and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever had to sit through, but thanks to the brilliant direction of Steve McQueen (Shame), I don’t feel as though I’ve been manipulated at all. 12 Years a Slave is simply an unflinchingly honest, harrowing, raw and emotional motion picture about one of the darkest eras of American history — and it’s interesting that it took a British director to make a defining film about it.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man during the 1840s making a living as a musician with his wife and two children. Following a horrible stroke of misfortune he ends up being renamed to Platt and is shipped off to New Orleans where he sold by a slave trader to a plantation owner. There is a lot more to the story, but I will just keep it at that to prevent divulging any potential spoilers.
This is a confronting film, a grotesquely violent film; a film that tears at your heart. The excellent adapted screenplay by John Ridley (Three Kings) does not hold back in showing us what slavery was like back in those days, and neither does the direction of McQueen. The cruelty, the frightening beatings, the habitual physical and mental abuse, and the helplessness and depression — it’s all inescapably there. And according to scholars and experts who have seen the film, it is the most accurate on-screen depiction of slavery they’ve ever seen.
The thing that impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave, however, is how McQueen just tells Northup’s story the way it is. This is not some Hollywood story of triumph or some warm fluff touting the beauty of the human spirit. It’s just a man who loses everything trying to survive under extremely trying circumstances. It could have been so easy for this film to spiral into an exploitative, manipulative, melodramatic mess, but the approach is subtle yet direct, presenting audiences the story as is, and giving us the room to interpret the hints and emotions for ourselves. I felt the injustice and outrage as designed by McQueen, but I didn’t feel like any of it was being shoved in my face, even when I was watching the torture taking place right in front of me. That’s what I call masterful filmmaking.
Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves an Oscar for the defining performance of his career as the stoic Northup. It’s such a difficult role, not just because of the physical aspects of it, but because of the layers required to play an educated man pretending to be an uneducated slave. He is no saint. He didn’t care about the plight of the slaves before he became one, and once he did, he did what he could to survive, putting himself first as most people would. Ejiofor’s ability to capture every side of his character is what allows us to feel his fear, his desperation, his pain. And it’s not like he’s running around gunning people down like Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained or giving out motivational speeches like Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln — everything we get from the character comes from Ejiofor’s understated expressions, the restraint in his voice, the sorrow in his eyes.
The supporting cast features a list of well known names, from Paul Giamatti as a slave trader to Paul Dano’s racist carpenter and Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender (third collaboration with McQueen after Hunger and Shame) as Northup’s two very different masters. Fassbender, in particular, steals the show somewhat as a religious nut and the primary antagonist in the film, though Cumberbatch’s more reserved performance as a fairly decent but complicated man provides a nice contrast while also reminding us that not all slave owners were sadistic.
I thought the appearance of Brad Pitt towards the end of the film was a little jarring, but apart from that I though they all made their characters three-dimensional and memorable in their own way. However, the lesser-known supporting cast also deserve a lot of praise, in particular Lupita Nyong’o, which has been nominated for best supporting actress as a tormented slave lusted after by Fassbender, and American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s icy psycho wife.
There are other aspects of the film which I usually don’t talk about but feel like I should point out here. I really liked the visual style McQueen employed for the movie, with a gritty documentary-esque look and a colour scheme that accentuated the realism and brought out the heat down in New Orleans. The music score by Hans Zimmer was also fitting for the period and helped add another dimension to the on screen drama.
12 Years a Slave is not easy viewing, nor is it intended to be. But it is a rare motion picture, the kind that doesn’t come around very often, where the story is compelling and the direction, script and acting are all top notch. And when all is said and done, it could end up being the movie that resonates more than any other released in 2013. Having said all that, it’s hard to give 5 stars to a film that’s almost impossible to enjoy.
4.5 stars out of 5.
PS: 12 Years a Slave is not without critics. There are some who say the film was made just to make white people feel bad about what happened. There are others who criticised the decision to focus on an educated man, someone who wasn’t a real slave, rather than one of the millions born into slavery and never knew any better, just so audiences can connect with the protagonist. None of these are valid criticisms. First of all, everyone, regardless of who you are, should feel bad watching human beings abusing other human beings. Secondly, no one makes a movie just to make people feel bad about themselves. Thirdly, why not pick a protagonist who can connect with audiences? This is a great story, a true story that deserves to be told — why shouldn’t it be?