Solomon Northup’s story is one of endurance. If one takes nothing else from the new film, 12 Years a Slave, one should still appreciate the instinct to survive as beautifully displayed by the film. Northup endured arguably the worst thing that could happen to a person.
Kidnapped and sold into slavery, he spent a dozen years being whipped, tortured, worked to exhaustion, and humiliated every moment.
We all “know” about slavery, and “understand” what it entailed. But sometimes it takes something like a reenactment to really put things closer to approaching anything that could be termed “perspective.” I get annoyed when my coffee isn’t hot enough. This man was free one day, and sold into 12 years of daily hell the next. If a film can communicate this horror without being exploitative or paternalistic, then that film is likely to be considered great.
I think this film is there, on the cusp of that greatness. It was hard to watch, but still beautiful. The acting was searing, wrenching, excellent, but not without flaws.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work in this film will finally net him the Oscar recognition he deserved for Dirty Pretty Things (2002), David Mamet’s underrated Redbelt (2008). Without overdoing it, Ejiofor manages to capture a restrained fire and fierce dignity in Northup.
Michael Fassbender is also excellent in his portrayal of the cruel and pitiful slave owner Epps, who makes life a living hell for the slaves on his plantation. Fassbender is a lock for nomination when the academy announces its picks next week.
The standout of the film was Lupita Nyong’o as the constantly tormented and abused slave Patsey. This was her American debut, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was nominated for an Oscar. We’ll see her again in 2014 in the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop.
There are some very high-profile bit parts from Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti. These roles are mostly inconsequential and the star power in them more of a distraction than anything. But the real flaw of the movie is the preposterous and almost comically surreal entrance of Brad Pitt as Canadian savior and all around stereotype of white excellence, Mr. Bass. He enters in the third act and immediately goes to work tearing down the credibility of the film. Pitt was an executive producer on 12 Years, and it must be noted when reviewing his terrible casting in this role. The casting also caused a stir when the poster for the film was released in Italy featuring Pitt’s face prominently on the poster and almost no trace of Ejiofor, the true star.
Director Steve McQueen’s movies are hard to watch. His previous efforts, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), were both pretty heavy. Neither was as difficult but important to watch. There can be no sugarcoating it; you’re going to see horrific violence against slaves. And there’s no satisfying comeuppance dealt to slave owners like in Django Unchained. Just sad reality.
This really happened. It was horrible, and it must be seen.
12 Years a Slave is currently playing at the Darkside Theater.