REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

Rating:  4 stars (out of 4)

12 Years a Slave (2013): Dir. Steve McQueen.  Written by: John Ridley.  Based upon the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup.  Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Giamatti.  Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.  Running time: 134 minutes.

twelve_years_a_slave_xlgI see a film like 12 Years a Slave and wonder, what took Hollywood so long?  The work of Northup and other accounts by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass have been around long enough for talented screenwriters to probe firsthand glimpses into the practice of slavery.  Thankfully, the involvement of director Steve McQueen (no relation to the late actor) ensures a responsible and emotionally draining adaptation.

Understandably, you may experience some trepidation given the content of this film.  And make no mistake— McQueen’s third feature film makes no apologies for its unflinching portrayal of antebellum slavery and its physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences.  Yet McQueen’s South is not just a gallery of horrors—he captures man’s humanity as well as his evils.  It offers little sense of catharsis, but there’s something cathartic in that fact.

McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley choose as their subject Solomon Northup, a man who was born free in the North and scraped out a living as a violinist.  Coaxed into a short musical tour, Solomon is deceived by his newfound employers and sold into slavery.  His captors rebrand him as “Platt” and auction him off, silencing any protest with corporal punishment.

Integral to this terrible vision is a sense of authenticity, which McQueen nails with stellar production design.  The attention to detail extends even to the impeccably researched dialogue—the formal dialect jars against the shocking imagery.  And the camerawork—McQueen holds his camera on key scenes but never overdoes it.  A tough early scene has Solomon proclaiming his legal rights before his captor proceeds to beat him repeatedly.  You want the scene to end, but Solomon never has that convenience.

Terror, violence, and crushing reality rule the day here, as Solomon finds himself traded from the somewhat merciful but spineless Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an unforgiving taskmaster.  It’s on Epps’s plantation that Northup encounters the worst treatment and the greatest test of his dignity.

While brutal, the film benefits from what is sure to be the performance of the year in Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Ejiofor has spent most of his film career as a prominent character actor, unforgettable in such roles as The Operative in 2005’s Serenity or the conniving Luke in 2006’s Children of Men.  He’s played leads to be sure, but mostly in smaller films—this role is his crowning achievement.  As Ejiofor tests his soul throughout the film, his deeply expressive face keeps us entranced even under the direst circumstances.  In a film that could have been marred by sentimentality, how simple and beautiful to see Ejiofor stroke the names of his wife and children etched on his violin.

Even the power brokers never lapse into caricature.  Fassbender plays slaveowener Epps not as a man in control, but as a petulant child.  When he drunkenly wakes up his slaves in the middle of the night for a gallivant, we might wonder how such a man could even run a plantation.  Fassbender takes great risks not just for playing a slaveowner but for playing a man constantly battling his own insecurities.

This, my friends, is what happens when you get an artist to direct a historical epic.  I try to imagine this film in the hands of a bigger name director (read: Spielberg, or even Ron Howard) and imagine events played too big and too artificial.  Note an early scene in which Solomon kisses his children goodnight—yes, we know it’s his last time, but McQueen underplays it. It’s like we’ve simply peeked in on a man’s life, making his ordeal that much more tragic.

With the talents of director McQueen, writer John Ridley, and impressive cast (Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsey leaves an indelible impression), 12 Years a Slave creates a vision of antebellum South that is Boschian in its horrors and yet alive with insight into malice and corruption.  It’s a testament of times past and times to come, as slavery continues to scar the earth.

–The CineMaverick, 11/28

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