12 Years a Slave (★★★★)



Nearly everything you’ve heard is true.  Steve McQueen‘s anticipated take on the true story of Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, is the emotional juggernaut of the year.  It’s been about twelve hours since “12 Years a Slave” was unveiled to a crowd of New York critics alike.  At times, I allow myself to sleep on a film, recollect and recall all the moments that I enjoyed to see if what I felt was in fact how I really feel.  This is going to be an informal analysis of what I witnessed, adding my personal feelings and thoughts about what others had/have said, and giving you my interpretation of this sprawling work.

One of the things that have been thrown around for months now is the notion that awards season voting bodies won’t respond to it because it’s too “difficult” to sit through.  Let’s define difficult, shall we?  Is it difficult to see the first openly gay politician gunned down by his closeted colleague?  Is it difficult to see a reformed convict put to death by our country for his crimes?  Is it difficult to see a mother choose which one of her children dies during the Holocaust?  I’d argue that these answers add up to a resounding yes.  Yet, no one threw those phrases of “too difficult” around.

I’ve watched hundreds of films throughout my short 29-year history and I’ve seen some difficult cinema.  Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” can make anyone quiver in shame as it shows the despicable reality of the Holocaust. Paul Greengrass’ “United 93”, which is almost an emotional biopic of America’s darkest hour, makes me want to crawl up into a ball and cry.  And finally, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, one of the highest grossing films of all-time, shows the labor of our sins fleshed out into the beaten skin of an honest man.  And still, no one threw these hyperbolic terms out saying, “it’s too hard watch.”  Is it because this is an American tragedy, done by Americans?  Is it the guilt of someone’s ancestors manifesting it in your tear ducts?  I can’t answer that.  Only the person who says it can.  The structure of this country is built on the backs and blood of slaves.  But slavery didn’t just exist in America, it was everywhere.  It was horrifying what occurred for over 200 years and believe it or not, still exists in some parts of the world TODAY.

Now when approaching the powerful film by McQueen and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, there is a resounding honesty that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley inhabit.  There are no tricks or gimmicks, no cheap takes on a side story or character that is put there for time filling or a life-lesson for Solomon to learn.  Everything is genuine.  Is the film heartbreaking?  Oh my God yes.  Did I cry for several minutes after the screening?  Embarrassingly so.  I was enamored the entire time, head to toe, moment to moment.

I have long admired the talent that’s been evident in the works of Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I’ve known he was capable of what he has accomplished as Solomon Northup and he hits it out of the park.  He has the urgency, worry, and drive to get home to his family and executes every emotion flawlessly even when all hope seems to be lost.  Where he shines incredibly are the small nuances that he takes as the story slows down, you notice aspects of Solomon that make him even more believable.

As Edwin Epps, Solomon’s last owner, Michael Fassbender digs deep into some evil performance territory.  Acts as the “Amon Goeth” of our tale, he is exactly what you’d expect a person who believes this should be a way of life to behave.   He’s vile and strikes fear into not only the people he interacts with but with the viewers who watch.  As Mrs. Epps, Sarah Paulson is just as wretched.  Abusive, conniving, entitled, and I loved every second of her.

12YearsaSlave_SarahPaulsonMark my words; Lupita Nyong’o is the emotional epicenter of the entire film.  The heartache, tears, and anger that will grow inside during the feature will have our beautiful “Patsey” at the core.  She is the great find of our film year and will surely go on to more dynamic and passionate projects in the future.  You’re watching the birth of a star.

Benedict Cumberbatch is surely building himself as one of the most dependable actors in the business.  He proves it once again.  Paul Dano is sensational in his brief time on screen.  Alfre Woodard, always terrific in everything, is completely memorable in her few moments.

Hans Zimmer puts forth a very pronounced score, enriched with all the subtle ticks that strike the chords of tone.  One thing that cannot be denied is the exquisite camera work of Sean Bobbit.  Weaving through the parts of boat and then through the grassroots of a cotton field, he puts himself in the leagues of Roger Deakins and Seamus McGarvey as one of the most innovative and exciting DP’s in the business.  Especially following his work in “The Place Beyond the Pines” earlier this year.  Simply marvelous.

Oscar chances, since I know many of you are wondering.  Put the Oscar’s in my hands, you have a dozen nominations reap for the taking.  Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, dual Supporting Actresses, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score.  There’s also a strong and rich sound scope that is present.  The sounds of nature as the slaves walk or as Solomon approaches his master’s house is noticed.  The big question is, can it win?  I haven’t seen everything yet so I cannot yet confidently confirm if it deserves it or not.  I can say, if critics and audiences can get off this “difficult” watch nonsense and accept the cinematic endeavor as a look into our own nation’s history as told from a great auteur director, there’s no reason it can’t top the night.  I’m very aware that seeing the film along with Steve McQueen crowned by Oscar is nearly erasing 85 years of history in the Academy.  85 years of cold racism that has been present but many pretend is not. Are they willing and ready to begin looking into new realms of filmmaking and allowing someone, who’s not necessarily in their inner circle, to make a bold statement as McQueen and Ridley have taken in “12 Years a Slave?”  I remain hopeful.

12 Years a Slave” is the must-see film of the awards season.  An instant Oscar contender and possibly the best picture of the year.  Breathtakingly real with awe-inspiring performances.  Soulful and beautiful.  Destined to become a classic.

The film will be screened at the New York Film Festival later this month.  The film opens in limited engagements on October 18.