12 Years a Slave - Movie Review
Devastating, powerful, important, visceral, haunting, and life changing are just some of the adjectives that come to mind to describe the experience of 12 Years a Slave.
12 Years a Slave blows the lid off and exposes American slavery like Death of a Salesman laid bare the American dream. Gone are the bucolic, lyrical images of contented slaves, singing as they work for benevolent slaveholders: instead a terrifying reality of heartbreaking injustice and inhumanity is presented through an unflinching eye, by the very talented director Steve McQueen.
Based on the memoir of the same name, the film is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga Springs in 1841, who is kidnapped in Washington DC and sold as a slave at market in New Orleans. From there, he is shipped to the Red River region of Louisiana, near present day Alexandria and endures a horrible existence. Most of the twelve years are spent on the plantation of Edwin Epps, a sadistic, alcoholic, psychopath slave holder that makes most fictional villains seem like Santa Claus.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofar plays Solomon, and he is fantastic. As a respected, even celebrated free citizen who wakes up to find himself shackled and living in a hole, brutally beaten and then uncomprehendingly sold into slavery, Ejiofar infuses Solomon with continuous dignity. This is not easy as he goes from befuddlement to outrage, to humiliation, to a steely, cold will to survive. He does it all with his eyes. Ejiofar’s face is the window into the atrocities and terror of the slave experience. His expressions say it all, regardless if he is the object of torture and humiliation or helplessly watches it happen to a fellow slave. So often I felt, ‘this really cannot be happening’ and he evoked intensely this sentiment. It is a performance of staggering magnitude and subtlety, which surely deserves all the pre-award hype it has been getting.
Equally impressive is the vivid, unforgettable performance of Michael Fassbinder as the evil Epps. He is astonishing. Infusing the character with complexity and vulnerability Fassbinder’s Epps is so real that he begins to feel like part of a family. A drunken father or husband that had good intentions but something has gone terribly wrong and all goodness was long ago wiped away. Unpredictable and on a very ugly power trip, Epps is an incredibly frightening villain. A villain that Fassbinder embodies so well, that you feel he really did exist and you pray you never come across someone like that again.
These performances are equally matched by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. Fresh out of Yale school of drama Nyong’o is an amazing presence and delivers a raw, credible, powerful performance. When Epps finds her attractive, Patsey not only must face his cruel sexual abuse, but she also has to face the wrath of Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) whose random acts of violence towards her may not be as physically damaging as Epps’, but are equally shocking and disturbing. Epps’ relationship with Patsey deconstructs another myth about slavery often portrayed in fictional accounts: a female slave that engages in sexual relations with the white slaveholder receives special, preferred treatment and therefore encourages and welcomes the master’s attention. That is not true here. One of the most harrowing and vivid scenes is the punishment Patsey receives when she is caught returning from a neighboring plantation with soap. She has been denied it by Epps’s wife because if she isn’t clean perhaps her husband won’t be intimate with her. However Epps believes she has gone to the farm to have a romantic interlude with the white owner who has an eye for beautiful young black women.
The infamous soap scene is so vivid and agonizing that recalling now, to write about it, is upsetting. However this scene is the reason why the film works so well. 12 Years a Slave is a great and important film not only because of its truthful take on slavery but because of its artful execution. The violence, humiliation, subjection and terror that faced slaves are presented as they existed: random, intimate, unpredictable, and constant. Director McQueen’s film never drifts to melodrama, or preaching, he tells his story with unflinching reality and knows exactly when to reveal the horrors and when to cut away from them. He understands that the film’s power comes from the voyeuristic element of the audience’s involvement in the turmoil, if we have to turn away from the screen, the film loses its purpose. This is reinforced by maintaining Solomon’s POV and rooting for his survival. Solomon’s plight is our plight and we experience it as he does.
It is interesting to me, that several people I have talked to refuse to see the film, because they feel they just can’t take the exposure to torture and the degradation of the slaves or they think it is too violent; however these same people will see a horror or action film where graphic violence is depicted and bodies pile up. Shame on them, as 12 Years a Slave is an unforgettable experience. It is my vote for best picture of the year and one of the best films of the last ten years.