’12 Years A Slave’ review

Posted: January 4, 2014 in Movies

Heart-wrenching, sad, sick, and completely brilliant; those are words I would use to describe Steve McQueen’s adaptation of a tale about a freed slave in the 1850’s, abducted and sold back into slavery for more than a decade.

12 Years A Slave, adapted from memoirs of the same name, tells the story of Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the best role of his career)- a slave that earned his freedom and built a modestly successful family in upstate New York.  He is tricked by two men claiming to have a job opportunity for him and is drugged and re-sold back into slavery.  What’s especially difficult to watch, right off the bat, is Solomon’s – given the slave name “Platt” – reluctance to accept what is happening to him and the warning he’s given by another slave not to let anyone know he’s an educated black man unless he wants to end up dead.  Solomon’s journey back into slavery is one going from bad slave owner to bad slave owner.  He starts off being sold to a slave owner who is largely a hypocrite – buying slaves and forcing them into labor but making sure they all attend Sunday church service.  This owner, only known to the viewer as “Ford” (Benedict Cumberbatch), employs a slave handler named Tibeats (Paul Dano, in one of his best roles in years) who relishes in abusing the slaves and views Solomon as a slave that he can exploit.  Tibeats goats Solomon into a fight which sets into motion events that will shape the rest of the film.  Ford is forced to sell his slaves, including Solomon, to another owner – the villainous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an alcoholic who is so abusive one of his less demeaning acts is making his slaves get up in the middle of the night and dance for him.  It’s Solomon’s journey while a slave for Epps that truly defines his character as he’s made to do very unimaginable things.

McQueen has a knack for exploiting the unimaginable; take his last two films – both starring Fassbender – in which one views extreme hunger and the other examines sex addiction.  This time, McQueen has taken America’s first original sin – slavery – and explored one man’s view from the inside, per say.  The film is so real, so genuine that there are several moments when you either turn away or you feel bad for watching the events unfold.  Either way, you – as the viewer – are forced to make the decision of conducting this journey with Solomon or turning your head.  The character of Bass – played sparingly by Brad Pitt – represents humanity as he asks the question “what right as a human do you have to own another human?”.  By the end of the film, when Solomon is reunited with his family after 12 years, the strongest scene in the film shows his children – all grown up with families of their own – and Solomon apologizing for his absence.

12 Years A Slave is exactly the type of film that wins all the awards but is also one that makes you question humanity and why we, as a people, made the decisions we made once upon a time.   Schools should honestly incorporate 12 Years A Slave into their American history curriculum, as Solomon Northrup’s story is one that needs to be told.  McQueen uses Northrup’s story as his vehicle to examine just how harsh slavery was.  However, maybe the true star of the film just may be Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey – a female slave who is raped night after night and then expected to pick more cotton than all of the other slaves.  She’s the ire of Edwin Epps’ wife, Mistress Epps (nicely done by Sarah Paulson) by no fault of her own.  Patsey is about as innocent as one can get, yet she represents more strength than any one man can possess.  When Solomon is forced to whip the “skin right off her back” by Epps you finally get the message.  You finally get why McQueen has made this film.  It’s not to tell any one man’s story, it’s not to examine slavery from one person’s perspective.  No, 12 Years A Slave is about examining the transgressions of slavery and the effects it had on humanity, the human spirit.  An older slave dies while picking cotton in a field and the during his make-shift funeral you finally see Solomon embrace his slave roots and join in singing a hymn with the other slaves.  It’s in that moment that you realize Solomon is defeated and he’s never going to live the life he once knew.

12 Years A Slave has the most heartachingly happy ending I’ve ever seen.  And we’re all the better for having witnessed Solomon’s journey.

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