Directed by: Steve McQueen.
Written by: John Ridley based on the book by Solomon Northup.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps), Lupita Nyong'o (Patsey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), Paul Dano (Tibeats), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Brad Pitt (Bass), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), Dwight Henry (Uncle Abram), Bryan Batt (Judge Turner), Kelsey Scott (Anne Northup), Quvenzhané Wallis (Margaret Northup), Cameron Zeigler (Alonzo Northup), Scoot McNairy (Brown), Taran Killam (Hamilton), Chris Chalk (Clemens), Adepero Oduye (Eliza), Michael K. Williams (Robert), Liza J. Bennett (Mistress Ford), Andy Dylan (Treach), Garret Dillahunt (Armsby).
America remains uncomfortable about slavery. This helps to explain why so few movies have actually dealt directly with slavery over the years. Last year however, we saw two films that deal with slavery in two very different ways – Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was an excellent film about Lincoln getting the 14th Amendment passed, and Quentin Tarantino’s even better Django Unchained, a film that took the form of a spaghetti western about a freed slave going to a plantation to free his wife, and unleashing all sorts of violent chaos. Both films were critical and audience hits – which may signify more Americans being ready to confront their violent history. In his review of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), Roger Ebert stated that although they had already seen many great Vietnam movies – Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, The Killing Fields – that Platoon probably should have come first. It was a grunt’s eye view of the war, and the rest of the movies can build off of that. I feel the same way about Steve McQueen’s brilliant 12 Years a Slave. I didn’t agree with those who wanted Spielberg’s film to show the ugliness of slavery – that wasn’t what his movie was about – and I didn’t agree with those who thought that Tarantino’s film trivialized history – his film shows, albeit in a stylized way, just how racist, violent and despicable slavery was. 12 Years a Slave is the film that critics of those two films wanted them to be – a realistic, unflinching look at the horrors of American slavery. If I were to put the three films together on a triple bill, I’d show 12 Years a Slave first.
The film stars Chiwetal Ejifor as Solomon Northup, a black man born free in New York State. With his family away on vacation, he accepts the offer of two men with a circus to travel to Washington D.C. and play the violin for the crowds. The pay is more than he normally commands, and he has nothing else to do, so he agrees. At the end of his employment stint, the two men take him out for dinner – where they get Solomon so drunk he passes out. He wakes up in chains, prisoner of brutal men who either do not believe him when they say he is a free man, or more likely just don’t care. He’s a healthy black man – he’ll fetch a good price down South.
What follows is more than a decade in slavery for Northup – where he is subjected to all types of cruelty and abuse at the hands of his “masters”. His first is Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is by all accounts a “good” slave owner – he certainly is kinder to Northup than what he will experience later on – but he’s still employs Tibeats (Paul Dano), who taunts the slaves mercilessly, and will try to hang Northup later on. Ford does protect Northup from Tibbeats – by selling him to an even more brutal plantation owner, Epps (Michael Fassbender). When Northup tells Ford who he really is – Ford doesn’t care. He still owes money on Northup – and who will pay that if he simply lets him go? Ford may be a “good” slave owner – but he’s still a slave owner – and as the movie makes clear good and slave owner don’t really belong together. Things will become even worse for Northup under Epps – a cruel, violent man who proudly proclaims the slaves his property – and that there is no sin in anything he does with them because they are nothing but property.
The performances in the movie are all great – down to the smallest role. At the center of movie, Ejifor delivers a towering performance as Northup – a man subjected to the worst of human nature, who tries his best not to lose his own humanity. It is the type of performance that will win him the praise he has long since deserved. Equally good is Michael Fassbender as Epps – who could have been a caricature of the sadistic Southern plantation owner, but is given more depth here than we expect. He is in love with one of his slaves – Patesy (Lupita Nyong’o), and that love drives him to do even more brutal, violent things than his hatred does. Fassbender has worked with McQueen on all three of his films – Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – and together they make up one of the best director/actor duos working right now. McQueen constantly pushes Fassbender to deeper, darker places – and Fassbender delivers. For her part, Nyong’o makes a stunning debt as Patesy, who like Solomon, tries to keep her humanity in the face of such cruelty, but because she is subjected to even more of it, it’s harder for her. The most shocking scene in the movie – the one that is hardest to watch – comes about because she wants the simplest of things to make her feel human. Sarah Paulson is also excellent as Epps’ wife – who knows her husband’s feelings for Patesy, and hates her because of it. Paulson, a great actress who has mainly been relegated to TV work, here is given a great role and makes the most of it. I could spend the rest of the review praising the performances of the rest of the supporting cast – Dano, who adds another horrific creep to his resume, Paul Giamatti as a man who sells slaves, Alfre Woodard, who in two minutes leaves a lasting impact on the film, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killiam as the men who sell Solomon into slavery, Chris Chalk and Michael K. Williams as two other slaves who make the trip down South with Solomon, Adepero Oduye as a woman who cannot get over the loss of her children, Garret Dillahunt a man who seems trustworthy and Brad Pitt as the only “good” white character in the movie – who not coincidentally is not an American among them – but suffice to say, McQueen has pretty much perfectly cast even the smallest roles in his movie.
McQueen’s film is also impeccably made. At times for his previous films (and even a few for this one), McQueen has had his fine arts background thrown back in his face (as if Fine Arts automatically equals pretension) – but I have always found his extended takes to be brilliantly constructed. The shot of Solomon hanging, with his feet barely touching the ground, for hours on end is haunting – especially when McQueen changes angles as the long hours progress, and we see what’s happening in the background – and no one seem to think anything odd is going on. Or the toughest scene to take – when Solomon is forced to do something abhorrent, and McQueen shows it all in one, slowly panning shot. Rather than detract from the power of the scenes, I think these shots enhance it – McQueen doesn’t cut away, doesn’t give the audience anywhere to hide – you stuck watching it play out in real time. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt have done a masterful job.
I could go on listing superlatives for 12 Years a Slave – Jim Ridley’s excellent screenplay, which creates such vivid characters in short time, and nails the vocal nuances of the time, Hans Zimmer’s haunting, yet never overbearing score, the production design, the costumes, the editing, etc. – but then we’d be here all day. Sufficed to say, all of it is brilliant – and taken together it’s what makes 12 Years a Slave such a powerful, important and masterful movie. One of the very best films of the year.