A standout movie is one that touches your heart in soul, be that in a depressing or joyous way. Typically, these standout films tell stories relating to dark subject matter and the strength to survive. As we watch the characters struggle, we become attached to their person and care about their well-being. No matter how hard a watch the film is, it’s still one worth watching. When a filmmaker risks it all to tell the story that no one wants to tell, it must be important. When that filmmaker holds nothing back and tells the story as it is, it’s even more important. This year, we may have the most important film about U.S. History and the atrocity that was slavery.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lived his life as a freeman in Saratoga Springs, New York. He had a family, a stable job and was a renowned violin player. One day while his family was away, two traveling circus men named Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) recruit Solomon for a few weeks to tour with them. One night, Solomon is taken captive in the night and wakes up in shackles in a darkened room. Shortly following his capture, Solomon is sent aboard a slaving ship and arrives in the south, where a man (Paul Giamatti) sells him to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a local plantation owner.
In his time spent on Ford’s plantation, Solomon uses his wits and education to better himself in his master’s eyes, which only makes the farmhand Tibeats (Paul Dano) upset. Before too much harm can come to him, Ford “graciously” sends Solomon off to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless plantation owner and a man of God. There, Solomon sees the harsher side of slavery as his new friend Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is beaten senseless. Solomon tries to gain favor from the Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), but only finds more discouragement. His endeavors and struggles are continued throughout the film until the conclusion of his unfathomable story.
In 12 Years A Slave, Every scene in this movie serves a purpose. From the up-close whippings, to the bystanders of a hanging, every actor/actress has a reason to be doing what they’re doing. The beatings are brutal, as flesh is ripped off of the back of a disobedient slave. The language is abusive, as young children are called “ripe N-words” and slave-owners use that word to bring their slaves’ spirits down. The nakedness of characters represents the identity of the slaves that was stripped from them, as they were turned into something less than human. Director Steve McQueen provides one unflinching scene after another, just as he did in his other two works, Hunger and Shame.
Chiwetel Ejiofor commands this film and never lets your attention waiver. There are a few scenes in particular that have you completely attentive and awaiting what happens next. The first, comes when Solomon is being hanged and he wobbles around on his tippy-toes to keep from choking. For minutes, life goes on around him, kids play in the field, and other slaves work the field and pay no notice to his struggle. The other scene comes near the end, where Solomon looks down the river banks and slowly turns to the audience and intensely stares for a good minute or two. In both sequences, you can see everything this man endured just by the look he has in his eyes. The fact that hangings were considered everyday affairs and that life went on around them is simply sickening. Every part of my soul ached for Solomon and this film had a profound effect on my being.
Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is pure evil and the performance is something else. Fassbender has now been in all three films that McQueen has directed and their actor-director relationship only strengthens with each project. Fassbender digs deep and reaches depths that none would ever want to come close to. His depraved character believes in the faux-scripture that he preaches and chooses to take his anger and lust out on poor Patsey. Lupita Nyong’o, the newcomer in the cast, steals every scene she’s in and she honestly breaks your heart. The hard work she contributes on the plantation, coupled with the pain and suffering that she receives is unjust on every level and will have tears rolling down your eyes. It’s not a stretch to say that her performance is going to earn her a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
It’s hard not to reflect on the history of the United States and slavery when you see this movie. Whereas most films tiptoe around the topic, McQueen tackles all the issues that are never brought up or discussed by anyone. We see the most horrid depiction of this evil from the firsthand account of Northup’s novel that shares the same title of the film. While some may cry out that this film seeks to make American’s feel bad about their history, I would say otherwise. This film tells the true story of a freeman who was wrong and witnessed firsthand, the terrors of slavery. Solomon Northup’s tale of endurance, perseverance, hardships and hopeful resolution will touch anyone who witnesses it and will send them home wiping their eyes.
You wouldn’t believe how long it’s taken me to write about this film. I sing its praises non-stop for its incredible story, action, and direction, but it hasn’t been easy recounting the events that I witnessed. What I do know, is that this is the best film I’ve seen this year and it’s the most important one too. The performances and direction elevate this film to something more than just a film and it’s one that’s going to stand the test of time. It is one of the hardest films that I’ve ever had to sit through, but I’m glad I did. Make sure to bring a box of tissues with you and be proud that you cried. Trust me, you won’t be alone.
12 Years A Slave Trailer