Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the most powerful movie I never want to see again. And even then it won’t be something any viewer will be able to easily forget.
This is not a film meant to entertain or be enjoyed, but rather provide the most unflinching, rawest portrayal of slavery ever put to film and McQueen accomplishes that masterfully.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity) has awoken into a nightmare. As a free black man in upstate New York, he was treated with dignity and respect. Solomon owned a home with his wife Anne, (Kelsey Scott) and children Margaret (Quvenzhane Wallis) and Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler) and was showcasing his musical talents with two fellow performers (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam).
Now, Solomon’s in chains and forced to live a life he never envisioned — as a slave.
Humiliated and treated like meat, the joys of Solomon’s former life are quickly stripped away as he witnesses savage, demented behavior from some truly evil people. Still, Solomon refuses to lose his sense of self and be anything less than the man he’s always considered himself to be.
Using Northup’s book of his actual accounts, John Ridley’s (Red Tails) script plainly depicts the hypocrisy of the plantation owners spouting scripture one moment and then viciously beating or raping their slaves the next.
Ejiofor has been a solid performer for years, but he shoots up to the upper echelon with a stirring performance. If the audience isn’t completely giving in to their emotions, they’re holding them back watching him. Ejiofor is the audience’s gateway and he makes the experience a little too real and far too close. He delivers what could make him the fifth black man to win the Best Actor Oscar.
During the next decade plus, Solomon is sold and traded like a modern day athlete once his team can no longer afford his salary. Solomon is purchased by plantation owner, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness), a complex character who seems appalled by the harsher aspects of slavery, but not so much that he’ll stop buying slaves. From there, Solomon is sold to the cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus).
Fassbender is an undeniable presence on screen giving a terrifying, unhinged evil performance. Similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, Fassbender demands your attention whenever he’s on screen. You can’t turn away wondering what Epps is going to do next from attacking Solomon to lusting after his top cotton picking slave, Patesy (Lupita Nyong’o, who is also generating serious award buzz for thanks to an incredible feature film debut).
And like Ledger, I don’t see this award season ending without Fassbender snatching a slew of honors en route to being given the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
As brilliant as the performances are, McQueen refuses to be left out of any award consideration with equally strong gimmick-free direction. There’s no need for 3D or fancy camera tricks and McQueen lets every uncomfortable moment speak for itself.
With each unrelenting extended take that won’t cut away from another unimaginable travesty, McQueen keeps smashing the barrier of the typical movie/audience dynamic.
McQueen doesn’t make it easy viewing either by quickly cutting to another, less unsettling scene. He keeps us there to let it linger and truly sink in the full depths of depravity of slavery. At times, those moments are so intensely raw that it feels like McQueen is holding your head tight with one hand and with the other, forcing your eyes open to take it all in no matter how much you may want to turn away. It’s inescapable.
At a little over two hours, the film isn’t excessively long for a serious drama, but it feels lengthier due to the brutal subject matter that offers little room for levity and even less hope.
The lone solace is the title, which serves as a reminder that this horrible experience does at some point end for Solomon.
12 Years a Slave is not a feel-good, inspirational movie. It’s a crushing, somber and depressing portrait of American history laid bare in all its ugliness told in the most unforgettable way imaginable. You may not enjoy it, but it’s a must-see.