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.