For the last few years I have felt that Chiwetel Ejiofor was one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. With convincing roles in films like “Children of Men”, “Serenity”, and “Redbelt”, it’s been a long time coming for him to get some recognition. Throw in some great reviews coming out for “12 Years a Slave” earlier this year and it would be fair to say I was more than excited.
Ejiofor plays the true-life character Solomon Northup, a talented violinist from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. A story that is almost impossible to believe today, Northup was lured with a promising business opportunity and then betrayed, leaving him a slave in Louisiana for 12 years.
No doubt some people hear the subject matter of “12 Years a Slave” and think “Do we really need to go there again?” It’s not a ridiculous question, but I believe the American system of slavery was so dramatic, widespread and alarming that there are still many untapped stories to tell from it. If we can have a million cop movies that all run together, a few of these every now and then should be fine.
What makes this film stick out from almost every other of its kind is that the majority of its characters are unique. Throughout his time in the South, Northup works for several different masters, no two of which are quite alike. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a gentleman who takes care of his slaves about as well as one can in such a system. Judge Turner (Bryan Batt) is more strict, but a fair man who allows Northup to earn a wage as a violinist. Then you have Michael Fassbender’s Mr. Epps who is the stereotypically evil (but plenty memorable) master who Northup spends most of his time under. Though each of the characters involved with the slave trade have at least some blame for Northup’s plight, they have their own personalities and prejudices.
The slaves are a little more on the generic side with one notable exception: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Patsey is a young female slave who has the misfortune of being her master’s favorite toy. Some of the film’s most brutal moments are interactions between her and Fassbender’s Mr. Epps. Despite being her first feature film role, Nyong’o makes a strong case for Best Supporting Actress. I also wouldn’t be surprised to find Ejiofor and Fassbender on an Oscar ballot next year.
Something that really breathes authenticity into the film is the way the dialogue is written. Instead of falling into the same old slurring of words that every film about this time period likes to place on the English language, John Ridley’s script calls for more thoughtful expression and savory word choice.
Director Steve McQueen captures the brutality of the slave trade with an unflinching eye throughout the film. The first time we see Northup beaten in chains, the camera is motionless while a man literally breaks his paddle on Northup’s back. Another time he is strung up from a tree with only the tips of his toes keeping him from asphyxiation and the camera simply gazes from afar. Though it hides none of slavery’s evil, “12 Years a Slave” never goes into the borderline parody of films like “Django Unchained”.
There are only two criticisms of “12 Years a Slave”, neither of which hurt the film irreparably. First, the film doesn’t handle the fear of the situation as well as it could. There are two scenes in the film where Northup is being chased or threatened by one of his masters and there is little to no suspense. In fact, he is being chased around the Epps home by a knife-wielding Fassbender and the scene is mostly played for laughs as Epps slips or trips over his own feet. Northup’s situation is incredibly frightening but the film doesn’t do its best to capitalize on this emotion at times. Secondly, almost no one ages over the course of 12 years. If you didn’t know the title of the film, you would probably think the protagonist spent 3-5 years a slave. The passage of time is not particularly felt by anyone except for a couple strands of gray hair on Ejiofor’s head at the end of the film. This is actually a film that could have used another 15 minutes to help convey the length of its story.
“12 Years a Slave” is carefully and beautifully shot with outstanding performances and great characters. It is easily one of the year’s best films.
While the horrors of the African American slave trade were horrible, I would like to point out that slavery is not just a thing of the past. There are currently more slaves in the world today than at any point in human history. If you would like more information on human trafficking or slave labor, the people at International Justice Mission are a good resource. You can also take a survey to find out how many slaves currently work for you around the world. It’s pretty eye-opening.