12 Years a Slave isn't easy to watch, and it shouldn't be; it's one man's tragedy, but it's also the tragedy of countless thousands of souls beaten down.
We were offered the chance to watch this film thanks to Cinema Nouveau Oscar Buzz. The Steve McQueen spectacle is not an easy one to sit through, but it is definitely a movie we would recommend.
McQueen involves us deeply and meaningfully in the characters, their circumstances and the broader context. The impact is strong.
The film, inspired by true events and based on the book of the same title, takes place in the early 19th Century. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), lives in New York with his family as a free man. In a time when slavery still exists in much of the United States of America, his freedom is not to be taken for granted. Solomon is tricked by two men who eventually sell him into slavery.
He finds himself alone and scared before begrudgingly accepting his new status as a slave for more than a decade. Solomon is an intellectual man - an attribute which at times works for him and at other times works against him. He eventually finds himself on a cotton plantation owned by Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) a man who is renowned for "breaking slaves". It is there that he meets Patsy (Played by the highly praised Lupita Nyong'o) and it is there that he runs into Bass (Brad Pitt) the man who could be his ticket out of the world of slavery.
The film is an emotional, gripping journey that forces you to the boundaries of your comfort zone. The unrelenting violence, the unrestricted racist points of view don't make for easy watching, but it's essential. The era of slavery was not one of happily ever afters and kind favors from strangers (although, to a degree 12 Years a Slave shows both). It was a brutal, uncensored time where survival came before emotions. McQueen does an excellent job of setting a scene that evokes feelings of despair and desperation. A scene that is successfully complemented by some outstanding acting performances.
Ejiofor might not be a household name in the cinema world, but when he does make an appearance, he makes sure to deliver an Award-worthy performance. Cinema nerds will remember seeing him in Dirty Pretty Things and Talk To Me (films for which he was nominated and won several awards), but there's no doubt that he's saved his best for 12 Years a Slave. His dialogue is impressive and convincing, and when he is silent it is his body language that does the speaking. The clench of his teeth and slightest parting of the lips speaking volumes.
Lupita Nyong'o has also been on the receiving end of some well deserved praise following an impressive cameo in which she displays passion, pain, humility, despair and bemusement flawlessly. It's not hard to see why Brad Pitt wants to mentor her; the effortless nature in which she masters her emotions is breathtaking. Despite not having a great deal of screen time, Patsy's face remains glued on viewers' minds after watching the film.
In a film with quality acting performances across the board, you'd be forgiven for not being able to find a standout actor. However, Michael Fassbender deserves the spotlight for pulling off the unenviable role as the villain with aplomb. Fassbender is scary: a dangerous blend of psychotic and terrifying. He is also brilliant. Playing the role of 'slave breaker' Master Epps, Fassbender intimidates his victims, caring little for their emotions or their well-being. He hovers between the role of a violent, abusive owner to that of a lonely, stubborn psychopath who can't seem to satisfy his urges.
This film is meant to shake you to your core, to move you, to educate you and to captivate you. 12 Years a Slave does all of the above and more. The final scenes are as angry, as memorable, as overwhelming as anything modern cinema has to offer. Much more than a film about 19th century slavery in America, this sharply well-told story has a lot to say about the world we live in today.
(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)