Based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup, this is one man’s fight for survival and freedom. It’s set in pre-Civil War America in 1841 and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga in New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty and suffering from a terrifying sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) as well as unexpected kindnesses from the more human characters but also spineless, such as Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the final year of his enslavement, Solomon’s incidental encounter with a Canadian abolitionist called Brass (Brad Pitt) will eternally change his life.
Samuel Bass: The conditions of your laborers, it’s all wrong.
Edwin Epps: They’re my property.
Samuel Bass: You say that with pride.
Edwin Epps: I say it as fact.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster) is in the titular role of Solomon Northup and his performance was flawless. Not many know about Ejiofor but I believe this film and this performance will be his career defining role. Now, everybody should know who he is after being nominated for an Oscar and winning a BAFTA for his portrayal of the great character. Due to Northup’s position as slave, he is unable to speak his mind but he does on more than one occasion which gets him beaten or even hanged by some overseers to the point of near death. In consequence, Ejiofor is forced to make use of body language and facial expressions through his eyes much of the time.
His eyes become a lagoon of emotion. This is how Ejiofor and the audience become one, thus forcing the audience to tears, myself included. Solomon is forced to experience horrendous acts of humanity (or inhumanity), but he always maintains a certain dignity and honourability that makes his plight even more emotional. His performance is incredible, and every time I watch it, it sucks me in and one can’t help but cry. His performance was truly outstanding and worth every award that he received.
I couldn’t write about this film without giving my input on slavery. In Britain, slavery is a taboo topic and can’t be discussed in any manner. The English shy away from this and the Empire because it makes us uncomfortable and it’s a constant reminder of our crimes against humanity. We chained up our fellow-man in shackles and carted them off as slaves all in the name of profit and money. We thought black people no better than livestock and we’d send them to sleep with the dogs. The transportation of slaves on the ships was the equivalent of a sardine packet.
The ship’s captains would even throw slaves off the sides of ships to lessen the weight. They would then claim the insurance of lost goods or they could throw them off the edge if they were running out of food as well. This sickens me, and it’s the historical event that defines my race, black people. Slavery is an evil that should befall nobody but the superpowers of Europe and America enslaved the better part of continent for four hundred years or more that effected the generations to come. I truly believe that this abominable regime is a major contributing factor behind why Africa is the way it is today. How can humanity be so cruel? Thus ends my rant on humanity.
In this movie, Michael Fassbender delivers the best performance of his already awesome resumé. Fassbender plays a vicious, sadistic slaver called Edwin Epps. He’s also a religious fanatic as many were during this era, in the deep south. He is a flawed man and he’s always drunk. He’s given absolute power over other human beings so he treats them how he likes. He’s vile and disgusting and you can’t help but gaze in awe at Fassbender’s performance. He’s always so menacing and omits a cancerous aura even when not on-screen, as he sees his slaves as property and they are to be treated as animals. They must always be vigilant and prepared for his random acts of sadism. Other actors give great performances as well. Paul Giamatti (Straight Outta Compton), Paul Dano (Prisoners), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Alfre Woodard (State Of Affairs) and Brad Pitt (Fight Club) are all great in relatively small roles.
Director, Steve McQueen, has constructed a wonderful film amidst the bleak and serious tones. He has created a movie that has done the period genre proud. It’s picturesque and is up there with Roots. He has made a brutally honest film and that’s how slavery should be. It should hard to watch and in your face. This really happened and when I watch films like this, I want to be force-fed the truth and not a dumbed down story as is in many works of this topic. McQueen has created an emotional, brutal and hard to watch film and it makes me ashamed to be human that this is history. This isn’t just Black History. This is everyone’s history. Slavery effected a lot of people across many countries whether your ancestors were slaves or slavers.
The most important thing about this film is that it portrays the hard truth. Many works on this topic take the easy way out and limit the story to the slaves and nothing more. McQueen broadens the lens and we see how it affects those who flourished from slavery. For example, Master Ford is a seemingly decent person who respects his slaves and treats them like human beings. He comes off as spineless but it’s not his fault really. He is trapped within the tall walls of the institution of slavery. By showing kindness to slaves, he has incriminated himself. Doing anymore is going beyond and he just wants things to stay as they are. An example being when he cuts Solomon’s noose from the tree and saves him but can’t guarantee his safety so he has him taken to Epps’ plantation. Slavery is depicted as an awful and very damaging cultural norm that saps the humanity from anyone it touches. The convention of converting good men into a moral calamity, transforming flawed men into sadists, and turning an entire race of people into livestock that are no better than dogs.
The next thing I will talk about is the Oscar-winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o. Her representation of Patsey is emotional yet her story is as devastating as Solomon’s. It’s truly groundbreaking and watching this movie wants the audience to reach out and help these characters. Edwin has chosen her as his bed warmer, she is consistently raped by him and there’s nothing she can do about it. She has no rights. He’s white and she’s black. She’s his property though he has some twisted love for her because he will never sell her. What makes it worse, is that Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) hates her for being around, even laying her hands upon a Patsy on an occasion. A verily deserved Oscar for Nyong’o and I can’t wait to see her in Abrams’ Star Wars, and The Jungle Book as Raksha. In my opinion, her Oscar-winning scene was between her and Epps about the soap.
Every time I watch this film, it’s a heartache. It’s very hard to watch. I only find it with this film because it confronted the topic in a way that has never been done before. This film, and Roots are among the best portrayals of slavery that I have seen but then I have seen other representations like Django Unchained. I liked that movie but it made slavery amusing and I don’t feel that it’s a topic to be made light of. Plus it made slavery tolerable in a way that it was easy to watch, for the most part. Portrayals of slavery should be hard to watch. Watching 12 Years A Slave thrusts me into a hole of despair and misery. It overwhelms you and there is no chance of escape. It’s brutally honest, blunt and doesn’t pull any punches with events like the hanging of Solomon, the lashing of slaves, society’s ideology on black people and general outright racism.
I would certainly recommend this film but I advise you to bring your tissues. This movie was the best film of 2013 recieving ten BAFTA nominations (three wins) and nine Oscar nominations (two wins). So why should you watch a film that could leave you crying waterfalls and devastated? I’ll tell you why. The cast is outstanding, awesome set pieces, great costumes and the story i true to a fold, as any biographical story should be. Furthermore, the book to film transition is one of the best that I’ve ever seen. I’d even go so far to say that it is as good as or even better than Alex Haley’s Roots.