Stunning, gut wrenching, heart tugging, beautiful…I find all of these tumbling from my lips as I practically trip over myself to recommend 12 Years A Slave to … everyone I know. After sitting in my inbox at home for nearly a week and a half, I finally carved time out of my weekend to watch the film that took home so many awards this year. I get it. I really do. This movie left me speechless. (No, really. It does happen…rarely.) I sat in silence and used the time the credits were rolling just to think.
Based on a true story, Solomon Northrup, wrote 12 Years A Slave based on his experience as a free black man, kidnapped and sold into slavery in pre-civil war America. In the 21st century, Steve McQueen directed the award-winning film, and with the help of an incredible cast took home Oscars for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, and Best Writing: Adapted Screenplay. The film was nominated for many more Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Costume Design, Best Directed, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design…and those are just the Oscars. Check out their IMDB awards page for the complete list…I know. You’re still scrolling aren’t you.
The performances are stunning. Chitwel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson…a lot of familiar faces graced the screen in this film, and if I wasn’t already a fan…I certainly am now.
Being the geek that I am, I’ve seen a lot of these performers in other roles (Except, Lupita Nyong’o. 12 Years A Slave is her début film, and she won an Oscar.) Serenity, X-Men, Sherlock, 12 Monkeys, 300 and American Horror Story are all listed on my never-ending “favorites” list. (Well, American Horror Story scares the crap out of me… in the way that means that I stay up all night with the lights on …just in case.) Even if I leave their considerable work on the shelf, these performers are ones the internet is fascinated with, and whether it is a photo, GIF, article, interview, or trailer, there is no escaping. Yet, not once did I see Fassbender as Epps and think of Magneto, Benedict Cumberbatch and think of Sherlock, or Ejiofor and think of The Operator.
The subject matter…heart breaking, on so many levels. This isn’t an easy film to watch. Unlike some films about slavery, not all slave owners are portrayed as bad men, and that makes it both more believable and harder to accept. Cumberbatch’s character, Ford, comes across as a decent guy, who wants to do the right thing by keeping families together, treating people decently, and trying to keep Solomon safe. Yet…he owns people. (No matter how many times I study pre-civil war America, read about slavery or watch movies such as this, I have a hard time wrapping my head, and my heart, around the idea anyone ever thought this was okay.) On the flip side, Epps, played by Fassbender, is known as a person who breaks his slaves, and yet we see brief flashes of caring and regret.
It is easy to turn these characters into a type. The type to buy and sell people. McQueen does an excellent job of humanizing them. I haven’t had a chance to read Solomon Northrup’s book to see how he writes about these people, but the directorial excellence shines through in the film. As actors in the role of a slave owner, I think it would be easier for me to play a ruthless villain rather than a multi-faceted individual shaped by sociological and societal expectations. Someone who does what’s expected rather than what they believe is right, a person who uses deep-seated religious belief and scripture to justify the way he treats his slaves. Yet, these actors do an amazing job portraying these characters.
Although the film does not dwell on the violence perpetrated against slaves, it also doesn’t shy away from it. The scenes in which violence is used are visceral, and each one reveals vital aspects of the characters involved. Whether they are exposed as greedy, manipulative people, careless plantation owners who perceive these actions as their right, or as punishment for being exposed as men who harbor softer emotions. For me, each moment carried more impact because of this. Too often, I feel modern films fall back on violence and gore for shock value rather than as essential parts of the storytelling process. Although there is cruelty implicit in these actions, in 12 Years A Slave McQueen uses the beatings and whippings as a tool to develop character. I found more degradation and true cruelty comes from the casual disregard of these individuals as nothing more than work animals or marionettes, and exposes Solomon’s story, as well as all those bought and sold in slavery, as even more tragic.
That this story is set against a backdrop lush beautiful landscapes, gorgeous mansions, music, dance and outward gentility makes the juxtaposition of the circumstances of Solomon, Patsey, and others all the more striking. The visual choices reinforce the story. A reminder of the difference in circumstances. A reminder that some people, no matter their situation, will still take pleasure in the small things, like sitting in a field of flowers making dolls out of corn husks. A reminder that the exterior of a person, or of a society, is not an indication of what lies within.
Have you seen it? What did you think? Agree? Disagree?
‘Til next time,