DM Haight

Through cinema we can feel anguish, glee, vengeful, detached, remorse, and any number of emotions and fleeting states of mind that a writer or director may be encouraging us to feel through their characters. 12 Years a Slave deals a deeper, more tangible feeling while playing with our heart strings. Steve McQueen has directed the most important slave film we have seen since roots, digging deep into the mindset of the slave and slaver both, announcing to audiences that the slave is not always an ignorant, bumbling wretch, or an intellectual prodigy being wasted on the  fields. There is no doubt that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is the quintessential portrayal of what it meant to be a slave in the Americas.

An accomplished violinist, Solomon is drawn to a town, whilst his family is away, by two men offing him a job as a violinist for two weeks. He is abducted and forced into slavery, having been a freeman all his life. The panic we see manifesting as sweat on his brow, as the trembling hand and lip as he’s brutally beaten until he is forced flat on the floor. A gifted freeman has lost not only his freedom, but the very dignity that made him a human being. The portrayal of the abuse in 12 Years is uncommonly brutal for a drama in the multiplex, more akin to something we might see coming out of South Korea, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, than something we see being produced by Brad Pitt.

American audiences will love this film because it has an authenticity that you won’t find outside of densely written “autobiography” that has been edited by a whiter hand. Solomon’s story was all too common, and 12 Years lets us know that. McQueen’s direction has opened the minds and mind’s eye of audiences whose only notion of slavery is the trivial depiction they see in text books, or the dry, one-sidedness they receive in films and television. Finally there is a film that breaks off the shackles of the traditional Hollywood slave film whose only point is that slavery is bad. There were people being beaten to death, being tortured, being subjected to horrors. Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch emerge as the two polar forces of the slave holder. Cumberbatch plays William Ford, Solomon’s first owner–a kind man Ford’s only option in the end though is to relinquish Solomon, going by the name Platt now. Platt’s relationship with Ford was one built on trust, ingenuity, and fairness. Cumberbatch exercised his wings, playing the role of a would-be hero of sorts, at least in this situation; a broken heart and a conflicted conscience rip through him as he is forced to sell Platt to Edwin Epps in order to save Platt’s life.

Fassbender’s Epps is a brutally cruel man, the enraged opposite of Ford. A duality like this standard for this genre, but Fassbender yanks the role off the tired old shelf it’s been sitting on and fills it with the kind of life we have yet see in a film on slavery. The power play between Fassbender and Ejiofor is astounding, one in complete fear, yet managing to stay the course, the other relentless, ruthless, and savage. Fassbender plays the role as if he were trying to portray what whites thought of blacks. The savage persona was an assumption in the Americas of the slave, and Fassbender embodies that assuption and transplants it onto the visage of the slaver. Truly it may very well be one of Fassbender’s definitive works as an actor thus far.

12 Years a Slave has in it all the elements to make a classic film, and the brutality it lavishes on audiences will ensure that it is not soon forgotten. Solomon’s story is not a terribly unique one, but it was one that was brought to the screen without the reservations of disturbing the audience. When Patsy, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is beaten and whipped and her flesh parts and blood sprays out–that’s when you know a film has lost its fear and is ready to tell a story worth telling. Not only does Nyong’o perform with such sympathy that you cant help but jerk in your seat every time the whip comes down on her, but her portrayal of the ignorant house slave finally masks that awful, now cliche and deplorable depiction of house slaves from Gone with the Wind. McQueen’s newest feature is worth every second of its two hours and ten minutes, and finally we can start to see what that Ejiofor is capable of more and more with each project he works on. Between him and Nyong’o the two polar sides of the slave are covered. Ejiofor’s intelect and sincerity in what he does lends an odd, bracing authenticity to Solomon. The same is easily said of Nyong’o, who is more pitiful and endearing than any character I have seen this year. 12 Years a Slave is one of those films that will be shown to teach students what it was like to live as a slave, and honestly, I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.