12 Years a Slave Rivets Spectators

Posted on November 27, 2013 by

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Slavery is always a sensitive topic in film. The peculiar institution has either been romanticized, such as in Gone with the Wind, or used as a backdrop and sidestepped to tell a different story, such as last year’s Django Unchained. Few films have grappled with it as directly and brutally as this year’s 12 Years a Slave.

Helmed by British director Steve McQueen, the film tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man whose comfortable life as a violinist in upstate New York is shattered when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film is based on his memoir of the same name.

Throughout the film, Solomon’s hardships are depicted bluntly through McQueen’s gripping formalism. The norm in Hollywood films as of late is to shoot scenes using a shaky camera and frequent close ups. McQueen eschews this formula by framing each shot precisely, many times from medium range, and holding it for an often grueling amount of time. His aesthetic rigidness is a perfect match for the story being told.

McQueen’s previous films have also dealt with the psychological effect that takes place on those living under oppressive forces. His debut feature-length film Hunger (2008)  focused on Bobby Sands, the notorious Irish prisoner who led a hunger strike to protest poor conditions in a British prison. Both films deal with the effects of physical trauma, individuals against a corrupted system, mental and physical imprisonment, and racism.

Race is obviously a major topic in 12 Years a Slave, as it should be. Solomon Northup is a relatable character to modern-day viewers as well. He is an educated man whose freedom is suddenly snatched from him, so the audience is with him as he experiences life as a slave for the first time.

The entire setting and visual design is astounding. This is a film that transfers a 21st century audience to the 1840s, quite realistically, allowing viewers to absorb the sheer misery of life on the plantation. Impeccable period costumes with realistic buildings and cotton fields denote mindless labor for slaves and lucrative profit for the masters. The dialogue is also rooted in period linguistics but is never too hard to understand for modern viewers.

By the second act of the film, Northup winds up under the grip of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless plantation owner. Here the film expands its outlook from the individual struggle of Northup to a wider view of slavery, religion, and the warped mindset of the white plantation owners who frequently used the latter to justify the former.

Epps sites a passage in the Bible that states a man has the right to his property as a way of justifying his savage treatment of slaves. Northup’s enduring humanity, evoked memorably in a scene where he asserts his refusal to fall into mental despair despite his physical condition, proves a foil to Epps’ single minded view that slaves are nothing more than property.

Northup is a perfect protagonist representing the American dream spun on its head. Movies have shown rags to riches, self-made men stories, but never a riches to rags story of someone whose circumstances change so radically so quickly from a comfortable life to barely a life at all. This perversion of the American spirit makes 12 Years a Slave all the more powerful.

The acting throughout is tremendous from this first-rate cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor is mesmerizing as Northup, and Fassbender frightening as Epps. The supporting cast is full of familiar white faces, such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Paul Giamatti. Lupita Nyong’o gives a sympathetic performance as a viscously abused slave girl.

The title of 12 Years a Slave is a spoiler because it predicts the amount of time before Northup gains his freedom, but the audience is still engaged until the very end in Solomon’s plight. He is a compelling character, and, by the end, several audience members were in tears because of what they witnessed.

The most tragic elements of 12 Years a Slave is that there are no easy answers to slavery and no convenient targets to oversimplify things. In last year’s Django Unchained, the house of a plantation owner is literally blown up, concluding a stylized revenge fantasy that used the institution of slavery as merely a plot device. The stakes are considerably higher in 12 Years a Slave, as the evil plantation owner Epps is presented as a product of his environment and not just a one note villain.

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