12 Years a Slave Review
by Daniel Rester
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” says Soloman Northup, the main character of the slavery drama 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the novel of the same name by the real-life Northup, who wrote it in 1853. Northup was a free black man who lived in New York before being kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. It is not known exactly how Northup eventually passed away, but it is known that he survived twelve years of torturous hell before going on to live in better ways and write a famous novel.
Northup’s story first made it to the screen in 1984 as a TV movie called Soloman Northup’s Odyssey. Now we have a feature film version from director Steve McQueen, the man behind the dark dramas Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). McQueen doesn’t spare us his hard-hitting style from those films with Slave. He really shines a light on the true ugliness of slavery, leaving no room for things such as Gone with the Wind (1939) romanticism or Django Unchained (2012) revenge fantasies. In pushing the material in such a way and leaving little room for catharsis in the story, McQueen forces an emotional tension on the audience and makes us realize the reality of part of America’s past. The result makes for a tough sit at times, but Slave is perhaps one of the finest and more honest films to take on the subject.
From frame one onward we are dropped into the southern part of America through extraordinary uses of sights and sounds. It isn’t long after Slave begins that we see black people working on plantations and being degraded as “niggers” by whites. One of those black men is Northup, played by the brilliant, underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor.
After seeing a bit of the southern life, Slave takes us to when Northup was a free man. He is shown as a musician and family man, friendly with many and respected as a citizen. Northup is then abducted while away in Washington, D.C. for a touring group. Soon he is sent to Louisiana, where he is sold as a slave to a preacher named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). As time passes, Northup eventually ends up on a plantation run by a cruel man, named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), and his wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson).
During his years away from home, Northup comes across various slaves and slave masters. This includes a slave driver named John Tibeats (Paul Dano) and a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). All of the various parts are played by fine actors, including Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, Scoot McNairy, Garret Dillahunt, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.
Ejiofor and Fassbender are the standouts among the cast, both doing some of the best work of their careers. Ejiofor is unforgettable in the lead, presenting a full range of complex emotions for Northup and keeping the audience rooting for him the whole way. Fassbender is terrifying as Epps, an angry man who enjoys getting drunk. The character also has an (sexual) obsession with Patsey, played by Nyong’o. Fassbender has piercing eyes and a sooth voice like no other actor working today, and he brings a certain coldness to Epps that is remarkable.
Pitt and Dano are good in their smaller parts, though they seem a bit out of place at times. Paulson and Cumberbatch have a couple of shining moments as well. However, the best supporting player is Nyong’o. The actress brings a level of poignancy to the film that is hard to ignore, and her performance is even more impressive knowing that this is her major film debut.
The work by the people off-screen is amazing as well. John Ridley’s screenplay perfectly captures the details of the story, characters, and time period, while McQueen brings it all to life. McQueen expertly conveys the thought-provoking ideas of the script, such as the ability to hang on to hope, the possibility of a flipside between slaves and slave owners, the harsh truth of people being viewed as property, etc.
McQueen also brings a magnificent beauty to the film while never letting up on portraying the dirtiness of slaving. He, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and editor Joe Walker provide some incredible work in displaying the images, with perfect framing and color use and a few cuts that last for minutes in order to further the impact of powerful moments; one particular scene involving a hanging is one of the most intense things dedicated to cinema in a while. All of this is graced with grand music by the masterful Hans Zimmer and terrific costume design by Patricia Norris.
Slave is a bit slow, a few of the supporting characters could have used some more character development, and its passage of time within the story isn’t always as smooth as it should be. But it is really hard to nitpick at this film when all is said and done. It’s a landmark when it comes to taking on the subject of American slavery on film, and I really wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the awards season this year. Slave may be hard to sit through, and some will only want to view it once, but it’s an important, challenging film that is truly one of the must-sees of 2013. After further viewings I may even award it my highest grade, which is a rarity for me.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A)