Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by: Steve McQueen (“Shame”)
Written by: John Ridley (“Red Tails”)
Already considered by many to be the frontrunner for a Best Picture Oscar in March, Steve McQueen’s harrowing pre-Civil War narrative “12 Years a Slave” definitely has all the elements voters usually look for when designating a top-tier film. From its significant subject matter to McQueen’s fine direction to a script that pits man’s brutal nature against the persevering human spirit, “12 Years” has a lot going for it as we enter the start of awards season. Lest we forget a handful of performances (specifically from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) that can possibly garner each of them their own accolades at the end of the year.
Set in the antebellum U.S., “12 Years” tells the story of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free black man living in upstate New York who is kidnapped, sold into slavery in the American South and kept imprisoned for 12 years before he is able to find his freedom. Most of the story covers the time Solomon spends under the confinement of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a cruel slave driver who purchases him after his former, and less heartless, slave owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) informs him that he can no longer guarantee his safety. While working at Epps’ plantation, Solomon suffers immensely through vicious beatings and abuse, but does everything he can to survive in hopes of one day reuniting with his wife and children.
Adapted from Solomon’s 1853 memoir of the same name, “12 Years” is certain to be compared to the 1977 award-winning TV miniseries “Roots” starring LeVar Burton and Louis Gossett, Jr. because of the historical similarities. However, Solomon is a different man compared to Burton’s Kunta Kinte. Solomon knows what freedom tastes like, so when it is taken from him, the effects seem even more devastating. That’s not to say Kunta had it any better, of course, but Solomon had build a life for himself and his family. Kunta, who was taken from Africa as a teenager, becomes a slave first and then a man; for Solomon, it’s the opposite.
While much of the attention will be paid to the brutality of the film, McQueen avoids “12 Years” becoming sensationalized in any way. The violence is there without a doubt, but McQueen is able to balance it well with the strongly written characterizations shared by Solomon and some of the other slaves he meets during his time on the plantation. One of these women is Patsey (Nyong’o), a highly skilled cotton picker who draws the unwanted attention of Master Epps much to the dismay of Epps’ equally merciless wife (Sarah Paulson). The entire film is, at times, is difficult to watch, but it is during Solomon’s years with Edwin which break him down into something he never imagined he could become and, in turn, will make audiences recoil at the sheer hatred humankind had to endure.
“12 Years” is extremely powerful and should be considered essential viewing for everyone. The problem, however, comes from the fact that it feels less epic in scope than it should for a film of its caliber. The timelines are vague and by the end of the picture, when Solomon is set free, it is less emotionally gratifying that it should be. It might’ve been presumptuous to hope for an ending like “The Color Purple,” where each scene builds to a grand reunion, but there’s much less of that here. Add to that some dialogue from secondary characters that is delivered more like the actors are on stage than in front of a camera, and a not-so-fitting cameo by Brad Pitt (you can’t help but only see Brad Pitt in a beard), and “12 Years a Slave” deserves less praise than it’s currently receiving, but is still as raw and real as anything to hit theaters in recent memory.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Directed by: Steve McQueen (“Hunger”)
Written by: Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) and Steve McQueen (“Hunger”)
Over the span of a year he’s played iconic comic-book villain Magneto in “X-Men: First Class,” classic literary character Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” and groundbreaking Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method,” but it still took Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”) showing off a little more than his acting ability to get some serious consideration this awards season. Not that Fassbender going full frontal in “Shame” was the only reason he’s received universal acclaim for his portrayal of a New York City sex addict. The role, which Fassbender nails with unflinching confidence, is meaningful to witness. It’s impossible to turn away from it.
While most warm-blooded Americans enjoy sex, clean-cut businessman Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) craves it like a heroin addict needs a fix. Brandon sleepwalks through each day – going to work, downloading ridiculous amounts of porn, and trolling the city at night for his next female conquest. At times, he doesn’t even have to make much of an effort. One seductive glance at an attractive red head on the subway and she’s practically having an orgasm in her seat. The life Brandon is accustomed to is disturbed when his equally troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment and triggers painful memories he’s always ignored.
In “Shame,” all those unearthed emotions are exposed brilliantly by both Fassbender and Mulligan, who through their brother/sister relationship demonstrate their lack of boundaries when inhabiting the same space. Director/co-writer Steve McQueen (“Hunger”) skirts the idea of sexual abuse or incest in their past, leaving the audience playing a kind of cinematic shrink.
“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” Sissy tells her brother during one powerful scene. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) don’t reveal those nightmarish scenarios she’s referring to, instead focusing on the emotional destruction it has caused. What we’re left to watch is a damaged man whose addiction controls his lifestyle; someone who only finds contentment through physical pleasure. Retreating to a bathroom stall during the workday to masturbate, one might wonder if instead of coming, he should be crying.
Stamped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, Shame does have its share of fairly explicit sex scenes all necessary in context. The sex, however, isn’t what should arouse intrigue. Fassbender and Mulligan deliver on each of these complex roles an artful take on the fear of intimacy. Together they explore a taboo subject rarely confronted in film and prove there are more important issues than just what’s happening between the sheets.