It’s hard to speak about 12 Years a Slave. This is a deeply emotional film and is affecting in ways that simmer underneath our consciousness. 12 Years a Slave is unflinching, brutal, stylistic, beautiful, and heartbreaking. Steve McQueen has crafted a film that is powerful in its honesty and manages to make the audience feel sympathetic for the characters while simultaneously feeling implicitly involved in their situation. McQueen’s true artistry shines through as he juxtaposes all of the clashing elements of life during the slavery era.
12 Years a Slave is based on the book of the same name written by Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man living in New York State in 1841 when he was kidnapped, trafficked, and sold into slavery. He was forced to hide his upbringing in order to survive. The film follows Northup as he is bounced from plantation to plantation and tries to get word to his friends in the north who can rescue him. We are shown Northup wallowing in various stages of grief while alternately assimilating to his situation. He is utterly debased by being a slave, but in order to make it through he must be the slave his master wants.
Solomon Northup is played to perfection by Chiwetel Ejiofor. His expressive eyes let the audience feel his journey and every moment of grief, anguish, and hope are reflected. This is a masterful performance by Ejiofor and is deserving of every accolade that will be heaped upon it. There are two plantation owners that are given significant supporting turns. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the marginally benevolent Master Ford and Michael Fassbender plays the excessively cruel Master Epps. Cumberbatch is excellent in his limited screen time, but Fassbender is truly wonderful. He lets the character be evil, while still being human. He is a deeply flawed man and Fassbender does not go over the top in his performance instead letting the confliction resonate in his actions without resorting to evil villain diatribes. There will be less praise for Fassbender’s performance due to the obvious debauched nature of the character, but it is a stunning portrayal nonetheless.
Steve McQueen has a wonderful eye for beauty in the abhorrent and stages much of the drama to the edges of the screen. There is beauty everywhere in the world and if you look just past it you will see the violence and depravity hiding around the edges. This is but one of the many shrewd choices McQueen makes that elevate this film. There are two instances where McQueen has the actors break the fourth wall and look directly at the camera. This tactic makes the audience feel as if they are a part of this story. It makes it uncomfortable to watch, as if our watching is somehow allowing the events to happen. It is also a theme that is brought up numerous times throughout the film. Events of staggering violence and cruelty are witnessed by bystanders who treat them as normal. There is no outcry. There is hardly any reaction at all.
12 Years a Slave is the story of a human travesty wrapped in exquisite filmmaking. It is remarkably powerful and heart breaking. It evokes emotion at every turn leaving the audience almost physically tired by its completion. This is a film that forces us to look at the realities of life during that dark period of American history as few, if any, films ever have or probably ever will. It is amazing filmmaking and a triumph in every way. Brilliant craftsmanship with a stellar presentation.