Yesterday afternoon, I made it out to see this year’s Oscar front-runner, 12 Years a Slave. This morning on the tube, I saw an ad for it in a newspaper a fellow traveler was reading and my first thought was, “I should go see that again.” My second thought: “I can’t do that to myself again so soon.”
This is absolutely nothing against the movie – in fact, it is a result of how good the movie is. I was a little worried as I sat in the theater waiting for it to start because films can get over-hyped. I didn’t want to be disappointed just because of all the good reviews I had read before seeing it. Aside from a short part in the middle that felt a little long to me, it’s an extremely powerful and moving film. It does not treat slavery lightly, and while reviews are littered with comments on how nonexistent this was in cinema before 12 Years A Slave, I’m going to say the same. It’s a topic that has not been adequately covered in film – or in history books, but that’s a tangent I do not need to go off on. It is tough, it is violent, and it absolutely should be seen.
In the early 1840s, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was living in New York state as a free African American with his wife and children. During this time, there was tension between the abolitionist movement in the North and those states in the South who still took part in slavery. Two white men kidnapped Northup from Washington D.C. and took him down to New Orleans where he was sold into the slave trade. Upon his arrival, a slave trader named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) changes Northup’s name to Platt and sells him to a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) living in Louisiana. Ford is surprisingly kind, treating Northup with more respect than any others thus far in the movie, listening to his input on the work being done and giving him a fiddle once he found out Northup could play. However, a conflict forces Ford to sell Northup and he is sent to work for Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is known for being exceptionally violent with his slaves. Most of the movie takes place on this plantation, and Northup is stuck there until a Canadian carpenter, Bass (Brad Pitt), comes to complete a project and shows his abolitionist views.
It shows the realities of the relationship between slave and slave-owner and deals with those issues head-on. Rather than implying the violence used against slaves by having it take place off-camera, it is shown right in front of our eyes. We see that the owners spared no thought for what they thought of as their property rather than another human being. The blatant ignorance of the slaves’ situation and abilities – they were treated as property because they were believed to be of lower intelligence, yet if they showed equal intelligence they were harshly punished.
Ejiofor’s performance is truly stunning – to be honest, I would love for him to win the Oscar for Best Actor. His supporting cast pull their own as well, particularly Fassbender as Northup’s second, unhinged “master.” Also Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a female slave on Epps’s plantation and his favorite – as a newcomer to Hollywood acting, she pulls out an amazing performance. There was no weak link with the acting in this movie, really. Director Steve McQueen, who also did Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008), is no stranger to tackling tough topics and he does it well – particularly with this film. He and Fassbender seem to make a good team, as they have worked together in all three films.
It is at times hard to watch, but that is part of what makes it a great film. McQueen is not afraid to be harsh in his depiction of slavery and how African Americans were treated during this time period, and this deserves more coverage. If or when you see it, just know what you are getting into. I was shocked a couple times in the middle of the film by what sounded like someone else in the theater laughing. It was likely directed at a line one of the slave owners said, but this is a film during which I never felt even slightly inclined to chuckle. And there were more than a few people who shed tears throughout the ending of the film. But don’t let this dissuade you from giving it a chance.