Film Review: “12 Years a Slave”

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12 Years a Slave, 2013

dir. Steve McQueen


I grew up with soap-operas that told similar stories back home. In Brazil, we are not so sensitive about the topic of slavery because we talk about it all the time, so perhaps that is why I didn’t react as strong to this subject matter as the other people sitting around me at the screen. However, I was still terribly moved by, not only the incredible story, but also the sensitive direction by Steve McQueen, and the amazing acting given to us by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o (in her first feature film performance, which is even more baffling, because she carries her time onscreen like a veteran).

McQueen is again excellent in his direction – the film is beautiful, and it provided a sad, real, and disturbing look into the life of a post-Civil War slave. Solomon (re-named “Platt” after being kidnapped and sold into slavery) is visibly hurting every time we see him, but he is also, as he says, surviving. This is not a film about freeing the slaves, but rather about the life of a man, which really shows that sometimes the “small” narratives pay off more than any Grand Narrative ever would (sorry Lincoln). Besides, there is something about the cinematography that feels very personal, intimate, like even if we’re on the outside, we’re living this story with Solomon. And the fact that there is no actual telling of how much time has passed (though we can wager it was twelve years, given the title) only serves to strengthen that feeling, since Solomon probably wasn’t really aware of how much time exactly had passed, just as we were made to.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is unbelievable in this. His performance is muted and heart-felt, and it brought a few tears to this very stoic blogger’s eyes. There is one particular scene where the slaves at the Epps cotton plantation are burying one of theirs who died on the field, and they are all singing a gospel song. At first Solomon is silent, simply looking down at the grave and listening to the music, but as the camera closes-up to his face, his eyes fill with tears and he joins in, singing more loudly than the others, pouring all his pain and suffering of the past years into the song. I cannot forget that scene, it’s been branded into my mind as what this film stands for, what it means, how much pain that man went through. It’s truly inspiring, and Ejiofor brings with him such subtlety that you can’t help but cry with him, smile with him, want to be with him.

Another stand-out performance was by McQueen-veteran, Michael Fassbender. As the insane slave-owner, Edwin Epps, he goes crazier and crazier as the film goes along. He is a wild, scary man who is obsessed with Patsey (played by wonderful Lupita Nyong’o). He is his scariest when he is not insane, when he is actually pleasant, because we can see the darkness lurking at the corner of his psyche. Fassbender plays that beautifully in such a way that, halfway through the film you have to remind yourself that that is an actor, that this is not a real person onscreen being abusive and crazy. Truly a phenomenal performance.

But the stand-out actor for me was Lupita Nyong’o. This is her first feature-length picture, and she steals the show. Her character, Patsey, is damaged and sad, and she is barely surviving through what her masters put her through (between Epps’s obsession and Epps’s wife’s hatred of her, Patsey feels suicidal at every moment). Nyong’o plays this with such beauty and realism, you feel the pain with her onscreen, you want to help her, you want to put her out of her misery, get her away from those insane people. But most of all, you want Patsey to be free with someone who will genuinely care for her and protect her. Her story is the background of Solomon’s, but it’s no less important, and it serves to show that not all slaves were saved by the abolition, that things didn’t actually get good, that nothing was okay.

The whole cast was incredible, to be honest. Though they are somewhat forgettable amongst the performances of Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o. Brad Pitt was only mildly interesting as Solomon’s friend and helper, Paul Dano was excellent, but a bit annoying, which seems to be his modus operandi. Sarah Paulson was fantastic as Mistress Epps, channeling all the hatred in the world against Patsey, and yet seeming gentle towards Solomon. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Master Ford (who plays the “good slaveowner”, though, much like Mistress Ford comments, there is no such a thing as a good slave owner, since at the end of the day, you are still a rich man who purchased another human being for free labour) was somewhat lost in his incredibly dodgy Southern American accent, which begs the question: have casting directors learnt nothing from The Fifth Estate Australian accent fiasco?

Another important character in this film is the music. The music by Hans Zimmer is muted, sometimes sombre, and always stunning. It creates another dimension to Solomon’s story and his suffering. Music is such an important part of this story, especially the fiddle since it’s how Solomon makes his living, so there is a lot of that throughout the film, mostly from him playing the instrument given to him by Master Ford (which he breaks years later, after losing his hope of ever getting out of the Epps plantation). Truly an inspiring original score.

Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a fantastic picture, and it will probably go down in History as one of those Films that made people think, that put things into perspective, that opened eyes and awakened souls.

review by Mariana Duarte


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