12 Years ... a masterpiece
Brilliant, brutal film a must-see for mature audiences
Wednesday, Nov 20, 2013 06:00 am
Rated "14A" for violence
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, and Paul Giamatti.
Solomon Northup is being hanged from a tree limb, his feet reaching the ground only barely. The tips of his toes slip around in the mud as he struggles to stay upright. Around him, the other slaves of the plantation continue to go about their business, their interference in his punishment strictly prohibited. They barely even take notice.
The day slowly passes into night, and this scene from 12 Years a Slave seemingly lingers at the same pace. It remains vivid in my memory.
It’s just one of the horrifying and incredible moments that occur onscreen in Steve McQueen’s powerful new movie, based on a true story. Northup’s crime? Working to side a house in the exact specific manner that he was instructed to by one of his many masters.
It is an exquisitely excruciating introduction to one person’s life in bondage. It’s not the only instance of onscreen brutality, however, and far from the worst. It’s simply a sample of what it means to be someone else’s property: to lose your identity and have your humanity shredded away from you, every joy and comfort … lost.
Yes, it’s a true story, and it’s an incredible, heartbreaking and awe-inspiring one all at the same time. It’s a testament to the human spirit that one person can spend so long in chains and still survive the torment in order to live free once again.
Northup (played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was an educated black man, a family man and an accomplished violinist in Saratoga Springs, New York. He lived as a free man in the United States at a time when that country still permitted the enslavement of human beings.
While on a trip outside the city, he was kidnapped and sold off, his passage as property taking him first to market and then from owner to owner. His resolve is incredible, staving off despair at every turn, even after being forced to take a different name, suffer beatings and threats of such, experience violence and abuse to himself and others, and more.
Director Steve McQueen is a director of exceptional skill, a minimalist who can tell a story as well as with the beautiful dialogue as with a moment of stillness. For these reasons, 12 Years comes across as a Shakespearean drama with its eloquent speeches and heart-rending performances, and malevolent villains. Its scenes of cruelty, however, rival The Passion of the Christ so be forewarned not to have a heavy meal in advance.
Northup is a noble and dignified man; his captors are savages. We know beforehand (thanks to his book of the same name) that he was able to find his freedom again in 1853, and even bring a lawsuit against his kidnappers. Even that was still a full decade before Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation, using Northup’s story partly as inspiration to explain why slavery is an abomination upon the planet.
What we have here is a film of great importance. It isn’t simply directed brilliantly by McQueen and written beautifully by John Ridley, but acted with some amazing talents. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a name that we should all learn to pronounce and a performer that we should all come to appreciate. His performance here is astonishing and outstanding. I don’t write all these superlatives for nothing.
Joining him in the cast are Benedict Cumberbatch, another versatile actor who can slip into roles so well that we forget who he is, despite his unique appearance. Then there’s Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Sarah Paulson, whose character – the wife of a vicious plantation owner played viciously by Michael Fassbender – has her own kind of quiet depravity tearing away at her soul.
All of these performers are exceptional but pale in comparison to Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, another one of the slaves. She is a kind of foil for Northup, as her despair and the circumstances of her treatment are in obvious contrast to his extraordinary optimism.
In the year after Django Unchained, a year when we also had Lee Daniels’ The Butler come out, we are finally getting into this dark matter with open eyes and an expanding consciousness. It wasn’t so long ago that The Help was in theatres either. One must wonder how many such tragic stories have yet to be told, and how many are simply lost forever.
12 Years is a triumph in every way, a small film with a big impact. It’s also something that everyone should watch. Slavery, after all, still exists in this world and it’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t just care because producer Brad Pitt made a movie out of it.