Credits roll, aaaand exhale.
That’s how I felt after watching Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
The movie is based on the book of the same title, written by the real Solomon Northup. It follows Northup’s incredible story of survival from a free black man in upstate New York to being abducted and sold into slavery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor takes on the prolific role of Solomon Northup and delivers a strong performance of blood, sweat and tears. One thing I really admire about Solomon is that he didn’t take his situation lying down. As a character who could so easily have become an observer to his surroundings, (hi Django, how’s it going?) Solomon is an active participant in his story. He makes things happen instead of waiting to be saved. Granted, he needs help along the way but that’s a product of the time and not a lack in his character. And I know we said no spoilers but I can’t help it. There’s a moment when Tibeats, the overseer of the first plantation and played by the soulless Paul Dano, pulls out his whip and demands Solomon strip down, all because the latter is the better carpenter. Solomon refuses, disarms Tibeats, and beats the overseer with his own whip.
Though an incredibly just moment, you are dead terrified for the aftermath of Solomon’s actions. And the music! A fiddle plays but it’s all wrong, as though the bow is being dragged unceremoniously over the strings. It’s off. It’s flinching. It’s dooming. But again I say, the reason Solomon is such a phenomenal character is because he defends himself in a time and setting where doing so could have gotten him killed. Ejiofor exudes strength and secrets his hate in the physicality of his shoulders while his pain is ever prevalent in his eyes.
And though Ejiofor is brilliant, it is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey who really grabs your attention. Patsey picks cotton on the plantation owned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), 500 pounds of cotton everyday – over twice what most of the men pick. But strong doesn’t even begin to describe this girl. Epps favours Patsey in the absolute worst sense of the word and she can do nothing but endure his wrongfully assumed ownership of her. McQueen’s use of tight shots hauntingly emits Patsey’s claustrophobic surroundings from the screen.
Nyong’o is fresh out of Yale University School of Drama’s Acting program and this is her first major motion picture. In fact, in her acceptance speech at the SAG awards, Lupita Nyong’o said she called her father when she found out she got the role and said, “Daddy! Do you who Brad Pitt is? I’m going to be in a movie with him!” To which her father replied “Well I don’t know him personally but I’m very happy for you.” Her performance is raw. There’s no other word for it. Except for maybe brave, desperate, unable to breath, and cringingly heart breaking. She definitely gets my vote for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.
And Michael Fassbender? He plays his part with an eerie hatred and inhumane emotionless villainy that chills you right to the bone. Edwin Epps is an absolute psychopath and a raging alcoholic. He invents his own rules of human conduct, and views his slaves as nothing more than property with a slightly higher value than livestock.
It’s a difficult part to play to say the very least. Not only must Fassbender have left set every day feeling sick with self-loathing, but he had the challenge of bringing something new to a character audiences have seen many times before. And he achieves it to a certain extent with perhaps a touch too much theatricality. Not necessarily overacting, but he is certainly the least subtle.
My only complaint about this movie is Brad Pitt’s role as the freelancing, wandering, carpenter. I know that he’s one of the main producers and a huge movie star, and the movie is based on a true story but seriously, did Pitt have to hammer us over the head with his “slavery is bad” speech? Thanks, we got that message from the entire movie. And like, common sense.
12 Years a Slave makes you so insanely uncomfortable but is a necessary reminder of why the world needs to move forward. It’s not preachy, it’s not out for vengeance, it’s history and it’s human. Or rather it shows the human persevering amongst inhumanity. It’s a man’s will to survive and what he must do to achieve it. It’s painful, disgusting, nerve wracking, nail biting, shoulder curlingly awful to watch, peppered with moments of heart and the difficult choices one must make to survive. The only time you breath is when there’s a shot of the scenery.
The movie won for best motion picture at the Golden Globes and it could very well be the front contender for the Oscar. Only time will tell! Stay tuned for Ash’s review of Philomena next Tuesday!
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