The first time I went to watch 12 Years a Slave it was at the height of its acclaim, buzz, and frontrunner status for the Oscars. There were so many expectations for the film and that may have clouded my original judgement, however this time the buzz has died down and I am now able to unbiasedly review the film.
Steve McQueen is a director that I have been keeping an eye on. After he released Shame, his second feature length film, in 2011 I realized that he was different than many of the other directors of this time. He is a brutal storyteller. There is an unflinching nature to his films. He makes moves to make you feel uncomfortable, but at the same time maintains the beauty of cinema.
The same can be said for his film debut Hunger and 12 Years a Slave. He is unflinching. The film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American man and accomplished violinist who is kidnapped and taken into slavery.
Throughout his nightmare he encounters allies and enemies who create an amazing ensemble cast. Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, who is one of the men who becomes an owner of Northup. His performance is the most complex of the cast. His character development runs so deep that you would think he was the main character. He is cruel, and even sadistic in some instances, but there is humanity left in him and Fassbender portrays that with a masterfully crafted performance.
Lupita Nyong’o has been receiving incredible buzz for her performance as a slave named Patsey, who often confides in Solomon. Her performance is heartbreaking and raw and whenever she is on screen your eyes are on her. She has been receiving several well-deserved accolades for her performance, but two other actresses in the film compete with her for the spotlight.
The first is Sarah Paulson as the wife Fassbender’s Epps. She is as cruel as her husband, however unlike her husband she has lost her humanity. Paulson is unflinching in her portrayal. She performs with an icy expression on her face and never breaks.
The other is Alfre Woodard. She has a short, but impactful, scene as a former slave who eventually married her master. She has fallen into a lifestyle of royalty and has begun to forgot who she was. She looks back on her life at what she did and how she got to her current position and regrets nothing, which is heartbreaking in itself.
Despite the strong supporting cast it is still Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays our hero Solomon Northup, who steals the show. He does something that not many actors are able to do without it being explicitly said in the script. And that is giving the audience hope. He plays the character with a strength and will, which transcends the words that are spoken on the film. He makes you want to continue watching.
Speaking of the script, it is one of the greatest adaptations to screen that I have ever had the honor to experience. Now I have not read the book that the film is based off, however I do know that it never provides as much emotional depth that this film does. It is poetic. There is no other way to describe it except pure poetry.
The film itself is beautiful. Each shot is pure artwork. Each note of music is pure emotion. Every cut is perfectly pieced together. Steve McQueen has assembled something that is great. It is an epic in scope, but a character study at its heart. It explores loss, grief, strength, and of course hope. The film is hard to stomach for its pure physical brutality, but the emotional toll is much worse. However, once you get past that you realize that this is a film that deserves to be watched, appreciated, and remembered.