12 Years a Slave (2013) - 9.5 / 10
"Sin, there is no sin. I can do as I wish with my property” - Edwin Epps
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, we follow the man from the time he is kidnapped and forced into slavery until his life changes again. Based on the book with the same name, written by Northup himself, it's clear where the film eventually goes. No doubt this film will get much comparison to Tarantino's Django, which also dared to show slavery in a gloves off kind of way, but this is a film that deals with slavery in a much less entertaining or satisfactory fashion. Rather, the film is brutal and does not shy away from being ugly and emotionally charged.
In my opinion, this movie is more similar to “The Girl Next Door” Both movies were absolutely horrible to watch, but left me thinking deep questions about society, and my part in it. Sadism sells, you only have to look at the “Saw” movies to see this. To use violence in cinema effectively requires a great skill for not only the actors but the plot, the characters and direction, all have to remain very focused. Each slave in this film has their character developed so when they are objectified the viewer knows the slaves emotions, thoughts and their humanity.
McQueen uses a special technique, by framing his actors' faces in extreme close-up, the eyes staring into despair, the nostrils flaming up in aggression. Naked flesh are shown not because of erotic content, but rather because of desperation and meaningless. Long takes and wide shots are not uncommon in his films, and here they display an excessive amount of fantastic scenes and performances that work to discomfort the viewer as much as possible. This is an extremely uncomfortable film to watch.
The camera gets up close as the audience watches the blood and flesh torn from the backs of people tied to whipping posts. There are moment-by-moment reminders to the slaves that they have no rights.
The many ways in which slavery dehumanizes people are shown here: a mother is torn from her children as the family is sold to different owners; a husband will never see his family again; educated blacks must hide their literacy from the owners; horrid working conditions; any form of defiance is met with strokes from the lash; every human comfort, every expression of human decency is denied to the slave for a lifetime and most important, every form of cruelty directed at the slave is acceptable because they are seen as property, not as fellow humans.
Acting was superb! I don’t know what other director could have picked a better cast. By the end of the film, I know that people will be in tears at the resolution and the emotion that emanate. A man's most prized possession is his freedom. Rob any man of that injustice, and soon his hope, spirit, and soul will follow. But Solomon was a man who did not, and would not give his soul, and his spirit fall into despair and hopelessness.
As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent. He handles the character with a great deal of emotional layer and considering the brutal and realistic nature of the film, it's hard to imagine many who could take on such a brave role. But even beyond this being just another film about slavery, McQueen goes the extra length to depict the film in such a fashion that we are almost forced to feel something.
There's a scene about halfway through in which Northup is left roped up with only his tiptoes to keep him from hanging. During this scene, McQueen carries the image in a single shot for several minutes, what seems to stretch into an eternity, during which everything around Northup goes as if nothing happens. Slaves go about their day, while the slave drivers don't budge an inch to help. As Ejiofor is obviously not choking here in real life, it is to his credit that we are convinced he is suffering for such an extended period of time. And the rest of the performance carries on with the same professionalism.
Appearances from Benedict Cumberdatch, Quvenzhale Wallis, Paul Dano (with his haunting acapella song - “Run nigger run, run so fast / Stoved his head in a hornets nest / Run nigger run well the pattyroller'll get you / Run nigger run well you better get away.”) and Paul Giamitti are all very welcome. Brad Pitt also appears towards the end in a role which completely turns the film around. Although his appearance is minor, his character renews our faith in the world and brings a sense of happiness that seems to be completely lost. All of the performances are Outstanding. Making her cinematic debut, Lupito Nyong'o as the object of Epps' attention, Patsey, gives a performance beyond that of many season stars.
For me, Fassbender stole the show. There’s one particular scene near the end of the movie that simply won him the award in my opinion. It was when his prized slave, Patsey (played by Nupita Lyong'o), went missing and suddenly came back from her Sunday stroll down the road. That whole 10 minute clip, all filmed in one take, was stunning.
The score by Hans Zimmer deserves a special mention for perfectly complimenting the visuals and cinematography and also enhance the effect that this film has.
Regardless, while the film may be disturbing and difficult to sit through, it is simply brilliant all the way through, and by far the most honest depiction of slavery that I've ever seen.