Well, kids, believe the Oscar talk on this one. 12 Years A Slave is a film to be reckoned with. Unlike a lot of the films about slavery (and there are A LOT), 12 Years A Slave is probably one of the more violent and depressing, most of which has to do with its subject matter. The story actually comes from an autobiographical book written in 1853 by the real Solomon Northup, who is played by the relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor in this film. Since I couldn’t find a good (or short) plot description, I’ll just go ahead and explain it here before we get into the heavy stuff.
Northup was a free man and accomplished violin player living in New York with his family. While his family was away, he was tricked, kidnapped, and taken to the South, where he was sold into slavery. His first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), found his intelligence to be quite valuable, but his one of his slave drivers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), wanted him dead. Northup was then sold to his second master, Epps (Michael Fassbender), a godly man known as the “n***** breaker.” Throughout all of his struggles as a slave, Northup continued to have hope that he would one day escape and return to his family, a hope that only grew stronger after meeting Canadian abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt), who offered to help him. Northup’s story is about life and death, brutality, and strength. Let’s talk more in the spoilers section.
Violence is the main takeaway from this movie for a lot of people. And how could it not be? Watching slave traders, foremen, and masters/mistresses beat and rape their slaves is hard. When watching this movie, it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is because we, as an audience, can collectively agree that what happens is horrible. As I said with my review of The Butler, I grew up white, female, and middle-class. Because of that, it’s difficult to discuss movies like 12 Years A Slave (The fact that I have to explain this now goes to show exactly how difficult it is). That being said, I don’t view this movie as something made by white guilt or even made to target white guilt. And neither should you. We’d have the same feelings had this film focused on Christopher Columbus enslaving and murdering an entire population of natives in the Caribbean or the Egyptian pharaohs forcing the Hebrews to build their monuments. You can find this story anywhere in the history of our world with people of all ages, races, sexes, and religions torturing, enslaving, beating, raping, and killing each other.
At its heart, 12 Years A Slave is about the injustice of degrading another human being and the value of life. The brutality in this film is only there to make those points, which is so much better than the movies that use it simply for shock value. We’re supposed to see that life, no matter whose it is, is valuable and shouldn’t be subjected to such hatred. It’s that very idea that keeps Northup alive and fighting in his 12 years as a slave. He could’ve gotten cynical, he could’ve become just as cruel as those oppressing him, and he could’ve lost his will to return home. But Northup knew his life was his own, and no one could take that from him. His strength is truly beautiful, and it makes the movie’s conclusion (where he reunites with his family) all the more fulfilling.
Like The Butler, the cast of 12 Years A Slave is heavy with big names: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard. But where this movie succeeds is that it doesn’t try to undermine Ejiofor’s performance with those other roles. Ejiofor is brilliant as Northup. He exudes strength and vulnerability in every expression. I don’t doubt Ejiofor will be nominated for Best Actor, and, quite frankly, I already know that he’s my pick for the win. His performance was that flawless.
Also, special recognition should go to Michael Fassbender, who plays the ruthless master Epps, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Epps’ favorite slave Patsey. Fassbender plays Epps with drunken fury, rationalized hatred, and even a sense of dark comedy. It’s an odd combination, but it works because the rape and lashing scenes that involve him are extremely uncomfortable. Nyong’o, however, gives the saddest performance. Since Epps desires Patsey, Patsey is subject to the most abuse on the plantation from both the master’s wife and the master, himself. When Nyong’o delivered Patsey’s speech about just wanting some soap (before her back is torn to shreds with her punishment), I knew we were watching a Best Supporting Actress performance.
Other things to note? Hans Zimmer (who I adore) has a haunting and amazing film score for this movie, and it’s really no more than slow strings playing four chords. Director Steve McQueen and his cinematographer play with lots of light and dark elements in the shots, which makes the film’s tone feel as deep as its underlying message. And I’m very pleased Brad Pitt used his production company, Plan B, to make a fantastic, potentially award-winning movie with more depth than the World War Z crap he gave us earlier this year.
Overall, 12 Years A Slave is brutal yet beautiful, which is hard to do, but director Steve McQueen managed to do it. After seeing this movie and hearing the buzz going around about it, it’s going to be a frontrunner this awards season. Best Picture, Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o are definite nominations. Personally, I’d like to see Hans Zimmer’s score nominated as well because it’s one of those scores that gives me the goosebumps. If you’re wanting a comparison of this movie to The Butler, let’s just say that The Butler doesn’t even exist on the same level as 12 Years A Slave.