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12 Years A Slave Review

2 Nov

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“I’ve had a difficult time these last several years.”

This is what true horror feels like. Steve McQueen’s brilliant take on slavery is brilliant because it’s a realistic take on it, portraying the true horrors of the slaves and the masters shackled by an institution, one which is unrelenting, unforgiving, and unfathomable. Anchored by masterful performances all around, the film is, much deserving, an Oscar treasure trove.

Speaking of Oscars, one might compare this to last year’s Tarantino epic Django Unchained, a fantastic film in its own right. Whereas that film was an idealistic, revenge fantasy, this one is realistic and brutal. Both of these movies are necessary in their own ways. Now, one might ask, “What’s the point of seeing yet another slavery film? We get it; slavery was horrible.” It’s certainly a valid question, but then again, this is a point in our history that has actually not been explored to its full extent. This film is necessary, if only to reinforce our previous notions of the atrocities committed during those times.

Still, necessary or not, it’s still an, ironically, beautiful film. McQueen’s direction is full of lush, gorgeous imagery as a backdrop to the horrors of slave life, and the camera lingers just as much on the beautiful as it does the brutal. In one of the film’s most shocking scenes, Northup/Platt is strung up by a rope, his feet barely touching the ground. What makes this scene particularly chilling is the background; as we hear Northup’s choking sounds, we also see a green background of other slaves going about their business. No other scene sums up better the true isolation of slaves in a crowd environment.

Of course, it’s not just Northup here. McQueen deftly explores the relationships that take place in the master’s home, not portraying any slaveowner as too kind or too evil. Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford recognizes his true capabilities, but he’s just as shackled to the institution as the slaves; he’s forced to give up Northup to cut his losses. The fact that this is all instigated by Paul Dano’s vile Tibeats only serves to support the idea of men warped by the horrors of slavery, as Tibeats is a symbol of the shocking, seemingly unrealistic depths of the time. After this, we are introduced to the wonderful Michael Fassbender’s Epps, a slaveowner stripped of all moral integrity by lust and desire for power. The dynamic between him and his wife (Sarah Paulson) reflects the tension, jealousy, and brutality of the relationship extremely well. No other relationship is more horrifying, though, then Epps and Patsey’s. In a breakout performance, Lupita Nyong’o brilliantly portrays a woman not only subjected to slavery, but subjected to the dark sexual desires of a delusional maniac. The scene in which she asks Solomon to end her life is a masterpiece of acting, and the scene in which Solomon is forced to whip her is the culmination of all the horrors of the movie.

628x471At the beating heart of it all, though, is Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role of a lifetime. He’s magnificent in every scene, whether it be in the dialogue free, lingering shot of his contemplation near the end or his interactions with Patsey. Solomon’s journey is one of a man that slowly loses hope even as he tries to keep it. He starts out as a respectable man, then is beaten and kidnapped. He keeps that hope, though, telling others that it must have all been a mistake. Then he’s taken on a ship, and his fellow slaves tell him to keep quiet and that all hope is lost. However, once he’s taken to Ford, his life starts to improve, and he tells a woman who’s lost her kids to soldier on; yet, she tells him that there’s no point. Solomon truly sees this when he’s thrown into the pit of horror that is Epps’ plantation, yet he still tries to get a white man (Garrett Dillahunt) to deliver a letter for him. That hope is crushed when Epps finds out. By the time we make our way to the end of the movie, we’ve made our way through so many reversals of fortune that even when he’s rescued, nothing feels right anymore. Did he even have hope all this time?

It is because of this that Brad Pitt’s cameo works. His is the final in a lineup of amazing actors and actresses, including Alfre Woodard, Michael K. Williams, and Paul Giamatti, and it certainly is the most distracting. Yet, it’s so surreal that it doesn’t feel triumphant when Solomon returns home. It’s a final scene of love, but it’s also a scene of uncertainty. Solomon Northup has come a long way from being Solomon Northup; he’s reunited with his family, but he’s always been Platt.

GRADE: A

Credit to FOX Searchlight Pictures and 12 Years A Slave for all pictures. I own nothing.

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