People often ask me why I love movies so much. My answer always remains the same. The art form has the potential to extract an unending array of emotions. You can have fun action flicks, engaging thrillers, and historical epics. Yet never does anyone revolt when a film takes on sensitive subject matter, as long as it is made with care. 12 Years a Slave is a prime example of the toll real, raw, unrelenting cinema can have on an individual.
The subject of slavery is very hush hush nowadays. Discuss it for a couple weeks in history class then let it go. Forget it ever happened. But, what if we’re missing it? What if it’s essential that we truly understand what was once an everyday norm in our nation’s history? I say it is essential. But think about this. How often do you see Hollywood pump out a film tackling the subject? Not very often at all. In the past decade I can only think of The Help and Django Unchained, the latter itself being a kind of alternative version of events if they played out according to the great Quentin Tarantino. But have we ever had a real, emotionally brooding, and savagely filmed work that depicts slavery for what it was? Now we do, thanks to Steve McQueen and John Ridley who, with Chiwetel Ejiofer and an all star cast, meticulously craft what is now and probably will always be the greatest film about American slavery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free African American man residing in New York, making a living by being a talented carpenter and fiddle player. Northup is approached by two men with a job offer as a musician, which he accepts, only to discover the offer was fraud. Instead, they chain him up and sell him into the slave trade. For the next couple hours we track with Solomon as his journey to various plantations and confrontations with atrocious traders risk taking him to his breaking point. In a role of magnitude such as this it is crucial you find an actor who cares about his craft and the material at hand. With Ejiofor, director Steve McQueen without a doubt found the perfect man. His performance is one that will be talked about for years. As this movie progresses, you see Northup not only as a character in a movie, but for the actual historical figure he is. Ejiofor’s eyes are pools of sorrow and frustration, sadness and hate. Yet love remains strong and forgiveness resides in his heart. And all of this is felt in full force. McQueen relies a lot on long takes in this film, which I will discuss later, and that visibly requires a lot out of Ejiofor, and he delivers with immense compulsion. As for the supporting cast, there’s a bit to speak of. Alongside Chiwetel Ejiofer in the acting categories at the Oscars this year is both Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. This is the third film for director Steve McQueen, and with Hunger, Shame, and now this one, it marks 3 of 3 to feature Michael Fassbender. McQueen obviously likes his talent, and it’s on full force here. His performance as a scum of the earth slave owner is the most haunting and disturbing performance of the year. I recently watched Dallas Buyers Club, and while I think Jared Leto is a lock for Best Supporting Actor, I would say his only competition, if any, is indeed Michael Fassbender. He is despicable, ceaseless, and abhorrent. It’s a brilliant performance. Luptia Nyong’o gives a strong performance as a slave alongside Solomon Northup. I’m glad she got a nod for Best Supporting Actress also. Without spoiling anything, I will say there is a scene in the third act of the film that involves a lashing. A long take that lasts for a few minutes. The acting by her, Ejiofer, and Fassbender in that scene alone could have earned them the nominations, along with McQueen for Best Director. Paul Dano does fine work here also as an antagonistic character he enjoys playing often, along with very strong work from Paul Giamatti in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him in years. Can’t forget about Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, both doing strong work as well in their roles. All in all, this is a strong showcase for good acting talent.
And then comes the directing. Who better to helm this film than African-American British director Steve McQueen. I have yet to see Hunger, but I did see Shame and thought it was wonderfully directed. Having been about a man with a sex addiction though, it was no surprise to see it get snubbed at the Oscars. But with 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has found his Academy audience. This is definitely the best film of McQueen’s short career so far. The direction is actually the best aspect of this movie, in my opinion, largely for the reason I think Gravity‘s best aspect was direction: long takes. I love long takes when they’re done right, and apart from Alfonso Cuaron’s work, I think Steve McQueen may be becoming the prime example of how to do it right. There are four shots in 12 Years a Slave that absolutely blew my mind. Without spoiling anything, I will just say this: one, a lashing toward the beginning that just didn’t seem like it would end; two, characters being led around to see which slaves they want to buy; three, a hanging scene; and four, the lashing scene in the third act. If you’ve seen the film already, you more than likely vividly remember each of these scenes. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the film and those shots still amaze, and in a few cases haunt me to this day. I still think Cuaron deserves the Best Director Oscar, but if it isn’t him, better be McQueen. It’s one of the best directed films of the year.
While watching this film I couldn’t help but hope Dr. King Schultz and Django would ride in and rescue Northup from these hideous beasts, but sadly, things didn’t work that way in real life. Slaves were treated horribly, and even that doesn’t come close to describing it. It’s absolutely disgusting and disheartening to think that these events really happened in our country, and really not that long ago either, and with 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s mission is to show us today what really happened. I know, I know, you’re probably saying, “It’s just a movie. It doesn’t accurately show what really went on.” Normally that is the case, yes. But with this one, I think it may be the opposite. It never feels like a movie. It feels authentic.
FINAL THOUGHTS: 12 Years a Slave is probably a lock for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, and while I can say there are a few other nominees that are better than this film, it will be justified if it wins. Yes, I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street more and no, I probably won’t watch 12 Years a Slave many more times in my lifetime, but which of those films will stand the test of time? Which one will be discussed in film classes decades from now? 12 Years a Slave. It’s an unflinching take on slavery, a rare cinematic feat that we may never see the likes of again. It’s the best film ever made about slavery, and it’s one of the year’s best pictures.