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12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an educated
and free black man living in New York during the 1840's who gets
abducted, shipped to the south, and sold into slavery. It is a film
that stimulates at both an emotional level and an intellectual one.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup. He's been a "that guy" actor
for sometime film-goers may know his face but not his name. After
this film his name will be known. He gives, quite simply, the best
performance from a leading actor since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will
Be Blood. Because of his character's position as a slave he is usually
unable to speak his mind unless he is prepared to be beaten. As a
result Ejiofor is forced to utilize body language and his eyes, which
become enormous pools of emotion to express himself to the audience.
He's forced to endure terrible things, but he always maintains a
certain dignity and nobility that makes his plight even more affecting.
It's a performance of incredible subtlety that may leave you speechless
and in complete awe.
Micheal Fassbender gives the best performance of his already extremely
impressive career, even besting his previous high marks from the films
Shame and Hunger (both directed by Steve McQueen, who also directed 12
Years a Slave). He plays Edwynn Epps, a vicious and demonic slaver and
perhaps the most loathsome and disgusting character ever put on screen.
If alive today, he'd likely be a drunk with severe anger management
issues. By turns pathetic and terrifying, he embodies the ultimate
nightmare of a deeply flawed man given absolute power over other human
beings, and through that absolute power finds only madness, which
drives him to deeper cruelty. He's always a menacing and malignant
presence even when not on screen, as his slaves must always be aware
and prepared for his seemingly random bouts of sadism.
Other actors give excellent performances as well. Paul Giamatti, Paul
Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard are all great
in relatively small roles. But in this film of titans it's the one
you've probably never heard of who perhaps stands above them all. In
her first role in a feature film, Lupita Nyong'o, playing the pretty
young slave Patsey - the object of Edwynn Epps demented and horrifying
affections and the emotional epicenter of the entire picture, gives one
of the most devastating performances I have ever seen. A portrait of
unbearable sadness, her character is a mirror image of Solomon. While
Solomon is a man who refuses to break and give up the dignity which
he's known since birth, she is one who has long since been broken, and
who never knew dignity in the first place. Her life is a living hell,
forced to endure the "love" of Edwyn Epps and the brutal jealousy of
his wife, she's trapped in a terrible triangle that she can't escape.
Despite that, she retains a level of innocence that only heightens the
tragedy of her character. It actually gets to the point where simply
looking at this character might be enough to bring you to tears. It's a
Starting his career as a video artist before making full length films,
Steve McQueen has an uncanny eye for imagery and contrast. He's also a
very patient film maker, utilizing long, steady single shots to
emphasize various things. In his prior films this has felt like a
purely stylistic choice, here, it's a choice aimed directly at our
heart. When the events on screen become their most horrifying and ugly
is when his camera becomes the most unflinching. At times feeling
perhaps like we're seeing out of the solemn eyes of the ghost of some
murdered slave, watching in sorrow and rage. This is both McQueen's
most accessible and artistically searing film yet.
There are also moments of stunning natural beauty that would make
Terrence Malick proud. Alone, these shots would inspire wonder, but in
the context of this film they make us feel more forlorn, as if the
ugliness of man is encroaching on the natural beauty of the world.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about 12 Years a Slave is the way
that it portrays slavery itself. Instead of taking the easy way out and
limiting his exploration of the topic solely to the slaves, Steve
McQueen increases the scope and we see how it affects those who
profited by it. Take Benedict Cumberbatch's character. A seemingly
decent and caring man who treats his slaves with some semblance of
respect and kindness. He comes off as a relatively good man who is
trapped within the powerful confines of the institution of slavery. In
12 Years a Slave, slavery is shown as a horrifying and destructive
social construct that drains the humanity from everyone it touches,
turning good men into moral quandaries, turning flawed men into
monsters, and turning an entire race of people into livestock and
To watch 12 Years a Slave is to be confronted with the grim reality of
slavery in a way that's never been done before. To say this is the best
film ever made about slavery feels trivial, as slavery is a subject in
film that has been shown with naive romanticism from films like Gone
With the Wind or silly exploitation from something like Django
Unchained. Both of which serve to make the topic digestible. To watch
12 Years a Slave is to experience a level of despair and misery that
can become overwhelming. It's a film of such ugliness, such blunt
emotional trauma, that it may haunt you for hours if not days after
seeing it. So why should you watch a film that could leave you reeling
and devastated? Because, it's also one of the greatest cinematic
achievements of our time.
Tags for 12 Years a Slave Full Movie
, Chiwetel Ejiofor
, Dickie Gravois
, Dwight Henry
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