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Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave
10.18.2013
9 10

PLOT: The devastating true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who, in 1853, was kidnapped from his home in Washington D.C, and sold into slavery in the south.

REVIEW: At the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Brad Pitt, one of the film's producers and stars (he plays the small, but pivotal part of a Canadian carpenter) said something interesting. To paraphrase, basically he said it took a Brit to make the definitive American film about slavery. Granted, it's a subject that's been explored before, most recently by Quentin Tarantino in DJANGO UNCHAINED. McQueen's movie is an altogether different kind of film, in that due to it's factual basis, it's not able to indulge in the wish-fulfilment or fantasy that made DJANGO such a crowd-pleaser.

As such, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is probably the most brutal, unsparingly realistic account of slavery since ROOTS. Northup's story is a nightmare, with him being a well-respected family man who, after trusting the wrong people, wakes up to discover that he's someone's property, and that nothing can help him escape his fate. An early scene where he's inspected by Paul Giamatti's slave procurer is especially upsetting, and Ejiofor brilliantly conveys both Solomon's searing rage and absolute terror at his situation. Ejiofor is most-certainly going to find himself nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, and truth be told, I can't see how he can't win. This is the performance of a lifetime.

Like his work in HUNGER and SHAME, McQueen never shies away from the brutality of the situation. Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon suffers not only unimaginable physical cruelty, but what's arguably worse is the dehumanizing process of being bought and sold several times over. Ejiofor has a line early in the film where he says, “I don't want to survive, I want to live.” This reflects on everything Solomon manages to endure, but it's truly agonizing to watch as he gets more and more dehumanized, especially once he's bought by Michael Fassbender's fanatical cotton farmer.

In 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Fassbender is the devil, even more insidious in that- like anyone who could ever delude themselves into thinking they have the right to own another human being- he thinks he's correct in his racist beliefs. He's utterly repellent, and it's a terrifying performance. Benedict Cumberbatch's more sympathetic slaver makes an interesting counterpoint, although an interesting case can be made that in a way, he's just as bad as the more obviously evil Fassbender.

With such a great lineup of heavy-hitters, it can be easy to overlook some of the less well-known faces in the cast, but Lupita Nyong'o, as the often brutalized Patsy, arguably has the most affecting part in the whole film. I've never seen Nyong'o before this, but her performance is so good it'll make your jaw-drop, and as the film went on, every time I saw her I practically felt like crying. I don't want to give away too much about what Patsy goes through, but she'll break your heart.

By necessity, McQueen's style of film-making here seems to be a little more conventional than it was in his last two films, if only for the reason that with a story that's this important, it doesn't really need to be told in a fashion that's too elaborate. His imagery, courtesy of DP Sean Bobbitt is simple but striking, with the beauty of the southern scenery making an interesting contrast to the ugliness of the story. Hans Zimmer also provides a powerful score (surprisingly more than a little reminiscent of his work on INCEPTION) that only kicks in as needed, but adds an unbearable emotional punch to several scenes, such as Northup's initial, terrifying journey to the south.

I should warn readers that if you thought HUNGER was a tough film to watch, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is even more shocking, and to be sure, it's not an easy watch, although I'd say it's an utterly necessary one. Watching 12 YEARS A SLAVE, I couldn't shake the notion that I was watching a film that will no doubt come to be known as the definitive movie on slavery in America. It's something I think everyone should be obligated to see, as it conveys the nightmare of that period in a real, affecting, personal way. It's unsparing, but how could it be anything less? McQueen's made another unquestionably great movie, and one that after you see it, you likely won't ever be able to forget.

Extra Tidbit: Note: This review originally ran as part of JoBlo.com's TIFF 2013 coverage.
Source: JoBlo.com

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