What was it like to be a slave? Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” answers that question and will make you regret any time you laughed during “Django Unchained” last year. The film is a powerful, raw look at a subject that is no laughing matter.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in New York with his family one day, and tricked into the slave trade the next. The film jumps through time in an almost dream like fashion, not telling the viewer where we are in the twelve years but simply telling the story. Through Solomon’s eyes, we are able to see what life was like for slaves, masters, free blacks, overseers, mistresses, buyers, sellers, etc. Each part of slavery and every type of person involved is represented.
From the moment Solomon is in chains his spirit is continually challenged to be broken. Rather than survive, he vows that he “wants to live”. It’s that drive and hope of reuniting with his family that keeps him going. Solomon goes from the household of Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is “kind” for a slave owner to the ruthless home of self proclaimed “ni**er breaker” Master Epps (Michael Fassbender). The journey is a look at the inhumane time in America’s past that only gets darker as the film pushes forward. Yet (Spoiler Alert) with the title telling how long he is held in bondage, freedom for Solomon eventually comes. (Notice I said freedom, not justice.)
McQueen proves his mastery as a director with his use of the camera, pacing, and drawing out incredible performances from his cast. He uses the entire frame throughout the film, forcing you to focus on what he wants you to focus on. Whether you’re looking at a face, sugar cane, or a shredded back there is a constant manipulation of focus that works. McQueen takes the time to let a scene or a moment breathe. At times the camera lingers longer than you prefer, like when Solomon is on his tip-toes in mud trying to stay stand up right to keep a noose from tightening around his neck. The scene is at least two minutes long, which is long enough to make you wish it was over while burning the message of cruelty in your mind.
Ejiofor gives a great performance as Solomon. We’re able to watch a man’s spirit ever so slowly be prodded and broken down. Michael Fassbender is absolutely terrifying as the brutal Master Epps. At times I wondered how long it took him to come back to his normal self after McQueen yelled “cut”. Lupita Nyong’o gives a stand out newcomer performance as Patsey, the object of Master Epps affection, trapped in hell on Earth. There will be Oscar buzz and nods around this film, and the casts performances.
This film is a tough watch, but it’s authenticity makes it great. It’s the “Roots” for this generation. It’s the new “Schindler’s List” for slavery. Above all, it’s a film that you will watch, connect with in some way and never forget.