Slavery was an abomination. There. Easy enough to grasp. But there’s always some idiot with an argument as to why it was okay. And the next time you hear some idiot spout off? Don’t say anything; just plop his vacant self into a movie seat and have him watch 12 Years A Slave. Based on the memoir of the same name written by Solomon Northup, this film doesn’t flinch when portraying slavery in all it’s horror, Even the staunchest cultural relativist will be reduced to tears by the end of this film. If not? Check for a pulse, because brosef is dead.
I’m a kid that grew up watching Roots. It was a landmark series, and everyone I knew was glued to the TV when it first aired. However, due to the usual Standards & Practices of television, much of the disgusting truth of slavery in the United States was glossed over because, to quote the Nickelodeon show, You Can’t Do That On Television. With 12 Years A Slave, it’s all right in front of you; degradation, beatings, treatment of human beings as things, and the worst part, a region’s acceptance of the system. This story is particularly effective due to the stellar performances across the board, but especially by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity) as Solomon and Adepero Oduye as Eliza, and Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) as Robert. Alfre Woodard plays Mistress Shaw, an African American woman who became her master’s spouse (though it’s not stated whether that was legally done or common law); her take on slavery and the Southern Antebellum way of life is like a cool drink of water among the horrors of this film. Oh, and keep an eye out for the always adorable Quvenzhané Wallis as Solomon’s young daughter Margaret.
The breakthrough performance is from Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a young slave woman who deals with both the unwanted attention of her master (Michael Fassbender) and the jealousy of her master’s wife (American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson). Expect to see her receiving many, many nominations come the yearly awards onslaught, because her performance is raw, touching and puts a real face on the worst, most despicable crimes of slavery. Lupita radiates charisma and her performance is nothing short of spectacular.
Director Steve McQueen (Shame) knows exactly how hard to push, and takes his film to the point of horror, but never crosses the line into grindhouse. He also takes the time to flesh out characters on the other side of slavery, giving them more than a Snidley Whiplash coating, which could have been an easy way to go about things here. The brief flashes of humanity in these characters serves to make what they do all the more appalling. Fassbender, as raging alcoholic/religious zealot Edwin Epps is a slave to his own obsession with Patsey. Paulson’s Mistress Epps, with her inability to move her husband without attacking others, has a haunted, broken look. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as Solomon’s first “owner”, Ford, seems to hate that he owns slaves, but doesn’t do anything at all to upset the system.
Are there unrepentant slavers? Most definitely. And kudos to the actors that portray them; it couldn’t have been a picnic getting into those roles. Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks) particularly stand out as a callous slave seller Freeman and a lumber forman Tibeats. Giamatti is blandly businesslike, going about his work as though his “wares” were nothing more than horses or bundles of cloth. Tibeats, a foreman who is showed up by Solomon and never forgets it, is so unapologetically racist and vindictive that it’s often difficult to watch.
Brad Pitt, who serves as a producer on the film, plays Bass, a Canadian that Solomon meets at the Epps plantation, and who helps Solomon get back to New York. As with Woodard’s Mistress Shaw, he’s a voice of reason amid chaos.
What was most shocking to me — thanks, US public school system — was the fact that my hometown of D.C. was a hotbed of kidnapping and slavery. I knew that free African Americans were sometimes kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South, but D.C. was apparently an epicenter. Made me shudder.
12 Years A Slave also shows how difficult it would have been to escape if you were a slave, and how defeat was passed off as acceptance. This film is also eloquent in it’s simplicity; with a subject so appalling, McQueen lets minimalism be the word of the day with much of the film. Time passes by watching a gazebo get built, and then painted, as Solomon’s years of slavery drag on. Patsey’s beating shows her face as she’s tied to a post, and the blood is a fine mist as the whip hits. (The aftermath of that beating on her body is sickening; the makeup FX in this film are disturbingly perfect.) 12 Years A Slave is riveting stuff, and if you can handle the subject matter, I highly recommend this film.