12 Years a Slave (5 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by: Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame)
Written by: John Ridley (Three Kings, U Turn)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, and Michael Fassbender
No film has captured the American slavery as well as 12 Years a Slave. Roots may be one of the few things that does a solid job (up until now) because it was in a mini-series format, but Solomon Northup's book, with which this is based on, allows one of the darkest chapters in American history to be fully explored on every level.
12 Years a Slave is based on the true events, which happened to Northup (Ejiofor) starting in 1841, . Northup was a black man who lived in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. Northup played the violin, went into stores, bought things for his family, and unlike most black people during this time. Northup was of course a free man. One day he was approached by a white man in his town. Northup was connected with two other gentlemen named Brown and Hamilton, the two offered to take him to Washington D.C. to play violin with a traveling circus of sorts. Northup was then drugged and sold into slavery, where he lived between different plantations for the next 12 years of his life.
There are two men who will get most of the acclaim for this film, and that director Steve McQueen, and the star Chiwetel Ejiofor. When people hear the name Steve McQueen, many often assume the "action" film star of the 1960s and 1970s. This McQueen is now directing his third feature film, and his style, and focus in the director's seat has reached sheer perfection. McQueen's second film Shame (2011), was one of my favorite films from that year. McQueen's direction is purposeful, and focused he knows how to keep the camera on a moment, when the audience is ready for the moment to be over.
While some have detracted McQueen's "art-house visuals" I have always embraced them and feel as though he extends them within this, mixing the traditional narrative of Solomon's story. McQueen's structure with his direction works even better within this film because of the superb connection with diary-like format of John Ridley's script. Ridley and McQueen work hard to make you feel as though everything we see, and hear comes from vantage point of Solomon. These two men are the first black men to direct and write a film about the experience of slavery.
Together all the people behind the scenes create the perfect window into the evil world of slavery. Sean Bobbit's brilliant cinematography can not be ignored; he has worked with McQueen on Shame, and Hunger. This man knows how to create the perfect shot, within Shame there was the sequence where Michael Fassbender was running through New York City, and in this film its the sequence of shots where Solomon is almost hung from a tree. These series camera of shots from 12 Years haunt me. Joe Walker's editing cuts just the like whip within each lashing, there is this precise movement showing every pain. These two men like McQueen, and Ridley are the creative minds who made this an incredibly real experience.
The man who plays Solomon Northup, Mr. Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to brace for the attention he is going to get for this film. Ejiofor has been around in numerous films and television movies, but this performance is wrought with grief, his face tells the story so well. As you watch Solomon deal with each intense moment you champion him and hope he can endure the harshness escape, and become free once again. Solomon's inner strength shines through; he knows he is a free man, but has to endure to both the beatings, and the malignancy from the white people he encounters in the south. Ejiofor is the glue that holds the film together on screen.
The ensemble within this film is one of the most cohesive, and powerful, this was Solomon's story, but as he interacts with his first master Ford (Cumberbatch), Eliza (Oduye), a young mother being sold into slavery with her children, his second master Edwin Epps (Fassbnder), his wife Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), Patsey (Nyong'o) the slave who was the object of Edwin Epps affection, and so many more characters. Together this ensemble tells a story of brutality, and injustice. Men of color at this time needed white men to speak for them even though Solomon was educated, and had a voice because of the color of his skin in the antebellum world he was seen as less than by most. Even as he is going to fetch groceries for Mistress Epps, and looks to run away he runs into lynching. There is no place to escape, no way to run away from the evils of slavery. The film never forgets the details of each slaves experience, treating their journey as a new story for Solomon to experience.
12 Years a Slave is not the first film about slavery, but its the most realistic, and the best ever made. The brutal nature of this film proves that this story about a free man ripped from his own life is something people often never think about. This film tackles the cruelty of slavery has never been handled before, and changes the game for film making, it's brilliant.