Twelve Years a Slave (2013)
Rated – R
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o
Note: This review contains spoilers
Steve McQueen has separated Twelve Years a Slave from other films about slavery. Here, there are scenes to make you cringe and scenes that are difficult to understand. It’s a movie that reminds us of such an era and how cruel humanity can be. There is pure power that stems from the heart of film through to the tear-jerking conclusion. Every element from the dialogue to Hans Zimmer’s score intensifies each moment. It’s also a film of hope and that even though our current society isn’t out in the clear yet from racial issues, we’re getting there.
Based on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical writings of the dozen of years he spent as a slave from 1841 through 1853, this film doesn’t hold back with shock-value and dialogue censorship. There are some very gruesome scenes involving rape, hangings, and whippings. All to justify what Solomon went through and saw as he bounced from one slave owner to the next. Specifically, the scene when Solomon is left hanging in the yard until his owner returned while the other slaves ignored him… that extended scene was extremely difficult to watch with Solomon tip-toeing to stay alive as he struggled for a breath of air. It’s one of the most effective scenes in the movie.
As the story goes, Solomon Northup was a free man who lived in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two young children. When he traveled to Washington D.C. to play violin, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold as a slave to Louisiana. His first slave owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), was a decent man who benefited from Solomon’s intelligence and skill set. But his vicious friend, Tibeats (Paul Dano), grew furious of Solomon over time where Ford knew his property was no longer safe for Solomon to stay. He gets sold to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a cruel, drunken slave owner who takes pride of controlling his slaves. Here, Solomon doesn’t stand a chance.
It’s impossible not to mention the great (and Oscar-worthy) performance by Chewetel Ejiofor, who dominates the film at every corner of every scene. He takes advantage of a handful of extended close-ups where he’s able to portray a variety of deep emotions as he’s living the life of a slave. His interactions with the other slaves and the slave owners is essential to moving the story forward and for sympathizing for Solomon. And at the very end, Ejiofor lets it all out with a heart-crushing, controlled moment when he’s reunited with his family. It’s the perfect finale for an outstanding performance.
In addition to Ejiofor, the supporting cast matches the intensity making Twelve Years a Slave as one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Particularly, Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey, the slave who Epps takes a specific liking to and who Epps’ wife detests. Her handful of scenes opposite of Ejiofor make for some of the most riveting of the entire film. Then there’s Michael Fassbender who plays Edwin Epps with the passion of being a slave owner. There’s never a doubt watching Fassbender that Epps only considers his slaves as properties, not people. Make no mistake that he seems to show a sense of compassion, but it’s really a show to control what he believes belongs to him. This could not have been done without Fassbender’s memorable performance.
Twelve Years a Slave is one powerful piece of cinema that will have your mind replaying certain scenes well after the movie has ended. Unlike last year’s Django Unchained, it doesn’t glorify anything with vengeance and violence. What you’re left with is an uneasy feeling of guilt and the compassion for Solomon and the millions of other slaves from the past. McQueen has accomplished a great feat here.