You won’t find anything funny here. This ain’t Django Unchained.
As one of the movies making some of the biggest waves this awards season, it was only a matter of time before this film practically got dropped on my desk to review. It had been on my radar for some time but circumstances prevented me from ever seeing it in theaters. Now that I have, is it worth all the buzz surrounding it, or should you be prepared to be underwhelmed by “Oscar bait?” 12 Years a Slave certainly is a powerful film. There haven’t been many films to portray slavery in such a brutal and realistic manner and 12 Years a Slave certainly excels as a film and as a portrayal of a true story. The film is directed by Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor) and he approaches the uncomfortable topic of slavery with an unflinching eye. The camera even seems to portray that aspect as it remains locked on certain scenes to help with the realism. Having directed the films Hunger and Shame, McQueen is used to directing films with tragic and uncomfortable themes, be prepared, you will be shocked with what appears on the screen.
Based off of the book, 12 Years a Slave follows the tale of freedman Solomon Northup, who is kidnapped in the 1840s and sold to slavers. Northup bounces around from white master to white master before eventually getting back his freedom (that isn’t a spoiler, the title practically gives it away). Along the way, Northup gradually becomes accustomed to the life of a slave and endures favor amongst one of his owners and flat-out abuse at the hands of the other. Racism is, of course, present in the film and some audiences may be disturbed at the actions portrayed. Slaves are routinely hung, whipped, and sometimes even sexually abused throughout the film. There is one scene where even Northup is forced to whip a fellow slave and the bloody results are quite disturbing. Northup is a strong and well fleshed out character and his sympathetic plight is conveyed appropriately to the audience and we feel his pain along with him. Sometimes, we even feel like crying for all of the harsh treatment that he has to endure. It’s a sickening part of American history and one that should not be ignored.
Solomon Northup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and it is most certainly his best role ever. Ejiofor has never headlined a movie like this before, and film fans will recognize him as the resistance leader from Children of Men and the assassin from Serenity. Ejiofor kills it and I don’t think I can sell his performance more than that. Let’s just put out there that Leonardo DiCaprio is going to have some tough competition this year. Lupita Nyong’o plays fellow slave Patsy, the hardest working one on the plantation. She is favored by her master but loathed by his wife and she has to endure so much shit that it just becomes disheartening to watch after a while. Nyong’o definitely has a great chance at winning the Oscar because she has several scenes in which she conveys all of the pain that she’s accumulated over the years, some very stirring performances there. Playing the part of Northup’s abusive master is Michael Fassbender who is just scary. He’s a rather complex character, treating several slaves like animals but reserving praise for a select few. He can act calm one minute, then go nuts in the next. And when he’s angry, he is the dominating force in the scene. His performance is so intimidating that you can’t look away from him and his flawed rationale. Again, another person that the Oscar could go to. Rounding out the cast are appearances from Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, and Benedict Cumberbatch, all who play their parts convincingly. The cast is a great strength of the movie and is worth a look, even if the story doesn’t interest you.
As a film on the whole, 12 Years a Slave is particularly well made. It has enough grit in it to avoid the feel of a soapy flick (like The Butler) and is played pitch-perfect by the cast. The score means well, staying in the background for the most part, until Hans Zimmer makes the idiotic move to put the Horn of Doom in the damned film during a pivotal scene (come on Hans!) I remained rapt with attention throughout the film and was captivated by all of the terrific performances. I still maintain that Gravity will win Best Picture at the Oscars, but now that my horizon has been expanded, I wouldn’t mind if this film did.
Final Score: 94/100 (Knocked off one point for usage of the Horn of Doom)