The scars of slavery are still evident over 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement. And just like the lashings on the backs of those that were treated so inhumanely, they may heal over time but the scars will always remain. Slavery will always be the low point of this country’s young history, leaving generations to come to wonder how humanity could be so despicably cruel and barbaric. While no one may be able to answer why something as evil as slavery would be allowed to happen, films like 12 Years a Slave show how it happened. It is this reason that 12 Years a Slave may be one of the most important films to have come out in quite some time. As difficult as it is to watch, it stands as a testament that man is capable of horrible things.
Director Steve McQueen is no stranger to dark, emotionally arresting material- his two previous films dealt with the 1981 Irish hunger strike (Hunger, 2008) and a sex addict in a downward spiral (Shame, 2011). Both those films showcased McQueen’s ability as an actor’s director- with Michael Fassbender in both title roles- as well as his ability to delicately handle difficult and controversial topics. McQueen once again displays that talent in 12 Years a Slave, never treading into preachy territory, but rather presenting the story as it happened, allowing everything that transpires within to speak for itself. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a freed black man living in New York with his family. After meeting two men from a musical touring group, he agrees to go with them on a tour while his wife and children are away. However, Solomon is tricked and sold into slavery; sent to New Orleans to work on plantations. Over the next 12 years, he is beaten and whipped, humiliated,and mentally and physically tormented. As the title implies, Solomon serves as a slave for only 12 years before making his way back to his home in New York, however knowing the outcome doesn’t ruin the story. It is Solomon’s constant determination to see his family again that drives the film.
So powerful is 12 Years a Slave that even if Solomon Northup’s story had not really taken place, the film would still be as impactful and lasting. The fact that it is based on a true story only speaks to the resolve of Solomon Northup and his determination to not lose hope in one day reuniting with his family. The credit here is largely due to Chiwetel Ejifofor’s performance, which is so haunting and restrained it feels as if we’re watching real events happening before our eyes. Sometimes there are performances which on the surface feel real but are revealed to be unbelievable, or even worse- Oscar bait. Ejifofor’s performance, however, feels so convincingly natural, that one forgets they are merely watching a movie and instead witnessing something real. There are so many quiet moments in Ejifofor’s performance, allowing a look or thought to speak so loudly about what Solomon is going through. McQueen balances these moments with equally still yet peaceful and serene scenic shots of the surrounding Louisiana landscape, allowing the viewer to reflect upon Solomon’s (and every slave’s) plight they have just witnessed and the depravity of mankind. McQueen seems to be showing just how beautiful and ugly nature can be, a juxtaposition that works to great success. These moments of juxtaposition are also displayed whenever Ejifofor shares the screen with Michael Fassbender, who plays slaveowner Edwin Epps. Fassbender once again disappears into his role, depicting the evil of slavery and of ugliness of humanity. So convinginly disgusting is Epps that it’s hard to separate Fassbender from his character.
Epps, however, is just one of the three men to influence the progression of Solomon’s journey. The first is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who initially buys Northup to work on his plantation. During his time here, Solomon earns the respect of his owner, and while Ford does partake in slavery, tries to serve (in his own eyes) as a fair slaveowner. After an altercation with an overseer, Ford trades Solomon over to Edwin, where Northup endures the hardest period of his time as a slave. It isn’t until he encounters a carpenter, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) that salvation comes to Solomon, as Bass is able to send a letter to Northup’s family up north revealing his whereabouts. Epps, Ford, and Bass appropriately represent the evil, complacency, and eventual end of slavery- each embodied in a single person. And while Northup’s story ended with his freedom being restored and his return to his life and family, so many countless souls were never as fortunate.
12 Years a Slave is one of those rare movies that everyone should see, not only as an example of the cruelty of slavery, but as a study of the potential evil of humanity. So enthrallingly tragic and yet beautifully shot and acted, 12 Years a Slave is able to depict both the depravity man is capable of and the art & beauty that equally comes from within.