Review: 12 Years a Slave is a Powerful, Challenging Film

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York with his family during the 1840’s. An accomplished violinist and respected member of the community, Northrup was lured to Washington, D.C., under the promise of work, where he was kidnapped and sold South. He spent the following twelve years as one of the thousands of victims of slavery.

This is one of the best (and most important, but we’ll get to that later) films you’re likely to see this year. There is no piece at play that doesn’t come together perfectly. The writing, direction and performances are all stellar. This is one of those films that sports a huge and impressive array of talented actors, and even though most of them only appear in the film for a short time, they make the most of their few minutes and turn in a stellar performance, despite the small role. Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard…all amazing, crafting incredible characters, that, despite only being onscreen for a few scenes at most, contributed greatly to this incredible story, and also helped to paint in the details of this world – good and ugly.

Carrying the majority of the story are Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Ejiofor gives an extremely powerful performance in the lead role. Like the audience, Northrup is well aware of the horrors of slavery (more aware than we are, if we’re being honest), but has led a comfortable life, and hasn’t experienced them first-hand. We see these atrocities through his eyes, experiencing the horror and fear alongside him as his world is turned upside-down and everything he knew is suddenly ripped away.

Michael Fassbender gives one of his most intense performances yet as plantation owner (and despicable human being) Edwin Epps. This must certainly have been a challenging part, but Fassbender takes it on and fully embraces it, giving Epps a complex harshness that it’s hard to shake off when you leave the theater, yet is vital to the story.

Lupita Nyong’o delivers an absolutely incredible performance as the slave Patsy, who resides on the Epps plantation and finds herself the object of Master Epps’ desires. Nyong’o delivers  several of the most powerful and heartbreaking scenes in the entire film, and does so masterfully.

12 Years a Slave is an important film due to how direct it is in its approach. It has absolutely no interest in cutting off the jagged edges and making the subject easier for its viewers to handle. Which is important. The events depicted in this film shouldn’t be easy to take. We shouldn’t be comfortable watching them. And yet, all too often, they are something that Hollywood chooses to water down.

Last year, I listened to an interview that Quentin Tarantino did with The Root when Django Unchained came out. Something he said during that interview really stuck with me, and I found myself meditating on it after 12 Years a Slave. Tarantino and interviewer Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discuss how slavery is regarded in contemporary American society. It is something that we acknowledge and will discuss academically, but we tend to hold it at arm’s length. We never really look the horrors in the eye, and thus, have never fully come to terms with our past.

Tarantino stated: I think America is one of the only countries that has not been forced, sometimes by the rest of the world, to look their own past sins completely in the face. And it’s only by looking them in the face that you can possibly work past them.

I think that is something that rings very true. Nobody will deny that slavery happened and was part of our culture and history, but we don’t really want to look at it up close and personal, either. Not in study and certainly not in film. We watch movies to get whisked away for a couple of hours and to enjoy ourselves – examining the horrors of slavery are kind of the antithesis of that notion. And thus, they are often given an unfairly light or antiseptic portrayal on film.

12 Years a Slave seems to embrace this issue. McQueen has no interest in sugar-coating this period in history or making it more palatable for his audience. It is direct, it is brutal, and it is absolutely unflinching. And it should be. This was a dark period in our history, and we should be acknowledging it as such. We shouldn’t be comfortable with it.

This is an important film because it places his history and its atrocities front and center and asks its audience to acknowledge them, rather than look away. And I think that McQueen was the perfect director to take the reigns on this project. He has a directness about his shooting style that isn’t afraid to make the audience feel uncomfortable in the name of conveying a truth, and that is a trait that this film really benefited from, on more than one occasion.

If you’re someone who normally is put-off by violence in films and shies away from the horrific, even in a historical context, I urge you to challenge yourself and expose yourself to this one. There are events that we have kept in a dark closet for far too long and it’s important that we, as a culture, bring them properly into the light. Outside of the historical relevance, this is one of the most well-crafted, well-performed films you are likely to see this year. Definitely check it out!