January 27, 2014
If you were to say that “12 Years a Slave” wasn’t touching, moving, heart-wrenching or powerful, I’d say you probably were watching another movie. Completely immersing, tugging at morals, and discovering what it means to feel compassion, this film retells the true story of Solomon Northup and the hardship his life endured during one of the worst times in American history.
Born a free man and living in Saratoga Springs, NY, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is abducted and sold into slavery years before the Civil War. Being an exceptional musician, he’s tricked by two slave-traders into playing his violin in Washington, DC where he’s then drugged, sold, and shipped down to the Red River region in Louisiana. There he moves from plantation to plantation, owner to owner with no way to communicate to his family nor a way to prove his identity and freedom. After countless thoughts on how to escape, his will diminishes and any hope of living the life he previously had, or living at all, dwindles from him.
The nine Academy Award nominations this film received is well deserved, particularly Steve McQueen’s Best Director nomination. It was a movie filled with intensity nearing on the uncomfortable, as has been the style of McQueen’s work in his previous films “Shame” and “Hunger”. His directing was beyond spectacular. He knew when to hold a moment as well as when to release one from the audience’s gaze. Countless times, a shot would linger on a solitary situation or a singular expression, letting it sink in both with the character and the audience. After attacking the slave-driver Tibeats (Paul Dano), realizing the consequences of what was just done, or simply accepting the fate of where his life stands at Epps’ plantation are great examples of this. There are many who would think McQueen’s films are difficult to watch, portraying too much “real life” and not allowing you any ounce of awareness that it’s just a movie. But a director that can completely immerse an audience into a moment, let alone and entire film, is truly extraordinary.
There’s no doubt that his directing was only heightened by the insurmountable talent of the entire cast. This film could not have had a better cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings across so much of the heartache, misery, and torture Solomon endured. You see how Solomon’s despair trudges deeper and deeper as the film goes on, making you wonder if there’s ever hope of him surviving. His only reassurance in his life was music, playing the violin. Solomon suffers so much at the hands of Edwin Epps, portrayed astoundingly by Michael Fassbender. The fear Fassbender instills gives so much depth to his character. Every time he emerged on the screen, your stomach would tense and you couldn’t anticipate the conflict about to erupt. The script would not have been better executed if this role were in any other actor’s hands. This film has so many characters with only moments of screen time and each actor/actress in those roles made them powerful and memorable. Paul Giamatti’s character Freeman was boiled down to a single line, “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” and he translated that completely within his character in the few minutes you see him on screen. From the understanding nature of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the tormented soul of Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) to the moral compassion of Bass (Brad Pitt), each actor supported Solomon’s journey and Ejiofor’s reenactment of it.
Though not nominated for Best Cinematography, the overlaying theme of this movie, that things are better beyond what’s in front of you, is best translated by the use of lighting and camerawork. Shortly after being captured and sold, Solomon’s transported to the south by a ferry steamer. The churning waters from the ferry emits the fear and sense of drowning Solomon feels. As the story progresses and Solomon’s spirit slowly disintegrates, there are constant shots of a colorful sky bleeding through silhouetted trees. All throughout, there are countless moments heightened by a simple camera movement or cutaway such as these.
This film brought forth personal feelings that I do not wish to share here, as the purpose of this is only to express the magnificent filmmaking exemplified in this movie. There were instances that made me angry and flooded my eyes, and it was through Steve McQueen’s talent as a director that this was accomplished. I cannot express enough how great a piece of cinema was created by bringing forth such strong emotions without relying on the sensitivity of the topic. More movies should embrace this kind of storytelling.