“12 Years a Slave” is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in the antebellum United States. He’s a musician happily married with children living in the North. One day he is offered a job in Washington D.C. Northrup takes the job only to wake up one morning to find that the people he was working for have abducted him and sold him into slavery in Louisiana.
Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is an educated well-spoken man who has to learn the hard way that showing his intelligence and revealing his background can be extremely dangerous. Another slave early on gives him the advice to keep his mouth shut because that is the only way to survive as a slave.
Throughout his time as a slave Northrup encounters a few different kinds of slave owners. At first he is bought at a slave market by a plantation owner named Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who puts Northrup to work. What’s interesting about Ford is that he appears to genuinely like Northrup. He listens to Northrup, gives him a violin to play and favors Northrup’s opinion over some of his employees. This raises the tough and interesting question of whether or not a slave owner can be a good man. Northrup wants to believe Ford is a good man in the hopes that Ford will grant him his freedom but as another slave reminds Northrup he’s still a slave owner and you’re a slave.
Later Northrup is sent to another plantation owned by the cruel Edwin Epps played by Michael Fassbender. Epps quotes the Bible to his slaves, using it as an excuse to beat them if they displease him. Another of the slaves is Patsey played by Lupita Nyong’o. Hers might be the most heartbreaking character. Epps is attracted to her, which leads to jealousy and brutality.
Two scenes in particular that stuck with me, involved the slave owners whipping the slaves. There have been movies that have shown this before but these two were shot with the whipping in the background, at a distance while other slaves were going about their work as if nothing was happening. This gives the audience a profound sense of how common and ordinary this horrible and barbaric act was on these plantations.
As the movie progresses I felt we were seeing Ejiofor’s character speaking less and less. Instead there were more scenes of Ejiofor’s anguished face speechless while Fassbender was doing the talking. There is even a moment where Ejiofor is sitting in silence alone, his eyes looking right into the camera at us looking as if he has nothing left in him. As if the man we met at the beginning of the film has been beaten down so much that he may have given up all hope and may be completely gone.
One misstep I think the film makes is the inclusion of Brad Pitt. He appears for a few scenes at the end of the film. I think it seems out of place to throw in a movie star into a movie like this after an hour and a half of seeing great and believable character actors, or actors not quite at the movie star level of Pitt. It did take me out of the movie a bit and I’ve never liked Pitt when he tries accents. However I have to acknowledge that Pitt is also a producer on the film and perhaps without his presence the movie wouldn’t have been made or would have gotten a smaller budget.
This is the 3rd feature film for director Steve McQueen and “12 Years a Slave” has some common themes with his past work; suffering, torture of the human body and spirit. McQueen is a director who isn’t afraid to tackle difficult themes and stories. He’s shown this with his previous work in “Hunger” about prisoners on a hunger strike and “Shame” where the main character is a sex addict. For a newer filmmaker he has made bold choices and has been able to pull them off.
However, I do find it difficult to be excited about his work because it’s difficult to watch. That’s not to say that all movies should be carefree but I do want my movies to be fun and entertaining and that’s difficult to have when your watching 2 hours of suffering. I don’t want McQueen to start making romantic comedies but it’s hard to watch his work and not want a stiff drink afterwards but perhaps that’s the point.
My Grade: B+. It may not be a fun night at the movies but it is an incredible story.