Review: ’12 Years A Slave’ (NYFF 2013)

12 Years A Slave poster

12 Years A Slave | Steve McQueen | October 18, 2013

12 Years A Slave tackles the subject of slavery in an incredible fashion that has stayed with me in the many hours since leaving the screening. Director Steve McQueen based the film off of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, Twelve Years A Slave. In it, Northup tells a harrowing tale of how he kidnapped as a free black man and sold into slavery for 12 years.

McQueen’s portrayal of this incredibly sad story had such an effect on me because as a free American, I can’t possibly imagine this happening to me or anyone I know. Northup may have been an African American living in American before the civil right movement occurred, but he was born a free man. To think that someone came and stripped that away from him and left him to the wrath of slave owners in the south is a horrifying thought, something that can and will connect with anyone on a basic human level.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup in a powerhouse performance that will leave you feeling broken. You see his journey start in his home in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841. He tucks his kids into bed and wishes them goodnight. He lays in bed with his wife, who is soon to leave on a trip for work. He’s living a good, normal life, until one day he’s approached by two men (Taran Killam & Scoot McNairy) posing as recruiters for a carnival. They come to Northup, who is a talented violist, offering him a job with good pay. Only they deceive him, drug him, and sell him to slave traders. They strip him of his identity, of his free papers, and most importantly: his hope and pride. All he wants to do is see his family again, but now just staying alive may be his hardest task.

It’s sickening to watch Northup’s freedom stripped away from him in order to be sold as someone else’s property. While aboard a slave ship, he’s given advice from a fellow prisoner to keep his head down and just survive. Northup tells him, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” It’s a powerful expression that demonstrates the strong will that he’s built upon.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years A Slave'

His first slave-owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) treats Northup with a sympathetic kindness that portrays the conflicted nature of a slave owner. This isn’t the case with the temperamental John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who treats him with disdain and contempt, and tries to lynch him, leaving him to fend for his life by moving the tips of his toes for hours on end, in one of the many standout scenes captured by McQueen.

It’s not until we meet the fierce “slave breaker” known as Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) that we really are forced into the harsh reality and horrors of slavery. Ford sells Northup to Epps because of a debt, and it’s a situation that leaves Northup on the brink of a breaking point. Epps is a disturbing man heavy on the drink and heavy on violent means of discipline. He forms an odd relationship with a female slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who he will rape and then adore, and then beat savagely after his confused and jealous wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) has had enough.

The horrors of the slave plantation are captured not through lens tricks or overly artistic shots (there are plenty of great shots, though). No, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt capture the disturbing elements with uncompromising shots that are right in your face, where you are forced to stare down evil straight in the eye, unflinching, and unable to move. There’s a truly horrific scene where Epps makes Northup savagely whip Patsey as punishment, shot without any cut or interruption, allowing only the eyes of the characters and the sound of the whip and her screams to do the talking. They pan back and show us the flesh coming off her skin with each hit. It was brutal and almost too real, every whip leaving a sting, leaving an everlasting impression on you. The score by Hans Zimmer tugs at the heartstrings from the early start of the film, and his score will continue to stir up many emotional cues, even though you’re already meeting them halfway after watching the incredible performances.

There’s no way Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his work. He delivers an incredible tour de force performance that is riveting and one of the most moving performances of the year. For his character a great deal of his performance came from the sheer expression is his eyes which did most of the talking. But when he needs to deliver those big heartfelt lines, oh man, does he connect. Michael Fassbender is a fiercely disturbing presence, a true villain in every sense of the word. He just radiates and oozes the evil nature of the character, a complete contrast to the bright baby blue eyes that McQueen highlights on screen. He isn’t just looked at through one dimension, his character is given multiple layers that slowly show themselves and make him all the more intriguing. Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation in her feature film debut, a telling presence in every scene that she’s in. All 3 are possible Oscar nominations.

The cast as a whole delivers on an impressive level. From Paul Dano to Adepero Oduye to Paul Giamatti and great cameo-like appearances from Brad Pitt, Michael K. Williams, Dwight Henery, and Bryan Batt. There’s not a weak performance to be found.

McQueen and John Ridley’s script gives us a different look at slavery through different situations and slaves, each unique as the next. It was unflinching and they don’t shy away from anything. Ejiofor’s performance often left me in tears, especially during the final scene where most of the theater could be heard sniffling away in unison.

It’s heartbreaking to think that a free man could be taken from his own life and be put in the hands of something so horrific. It’s a powerful film that’s an essential viewing that plays as a harsh reminder of the history that we like to pretend didn’t happen. It also serves to remind us how vital the human condition is when we have strong will do survive. Without the will to regain his freedom in order to once again experience the love of his family, who knows how far Northup would have pushed to stay alive. He has moments where he is slowly slipping away, losing hope, so scared that trying to sneak writing a letter becomes one of his most fearful tasks. The hope of once again experiencing the love of his family kept him together, without it, we may have never gotten to hear his incredible story.

12 Years A Slave is an unflinching and honest look at slavery and done so with a superb direction job from McQueen which will not soon be forgotten. It’s a film that is often hard to watch but with powerful messages and a very human story at the core, it’s as touching and uplifting as it is tough to swallow. It’s a triumph on many levels, one that will not be forgotten by me anytime soon.

Rating: 9.4/10