Review: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
In matters regarding a historical time frame, accuracy is key in presenting a story so that people can understand what occurred, and to give us all proper perspective to reflect upon and try not to repeat the horrors of the past. In British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, if you are familiar with his film style from Hunger and Shame, you know that he breaks down a story in its most raw form to show the true pain and torture of the protagonist of the film. After watching 12 Years, you will know that this is the most tragic depiction of the American slave trade ever told. It is no wonder that it took a British director, along with the top three actors of this drama, also being non-American, to tell the story of America’s colonial times of shame and inhumanity.
The film is based on a true story, and knowing this makes it part unbelievable, because you cannot believe just how frightfully cruel humans can be towards one another, and the other part is believable because you know exactly how cruel humans can be towards another. A free black man, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, living in the northern state of New York is tricked and drugged by two men falsely promising him a violinist performance job in Washington, DC. He wakes up bound in chains like an animal, and is severely beaten into submission for daring to try to explain who he is, and where he comes from. He then learns the hard way that fate played a cruel joke on him and his life is changed, 360 degrees, forever. What may startle some viewers is that the use of the N-word is introduced within the first 90 seconds of the film and is repeated approximately 300 times throughout the film, and the bulk of that repetition comes from a disgusting song that is proudly sang loudly by a plantation hand played by Paul Dano. McQueen probably did this to set the tone immediately that this film was going to be very different than any other film about slavery, and he was right.
As Solomon comes to terms with his situation, he is advised by other slaves that he needs to play dumb and subservient or he will be hurt in unimaginable ways if his master(s) knew he spoke eloquently, and could read and write. Every passing second he sees the horror of what it is to be a slave when he witnesses other slaves being lynched, beaten, whipped, and raped. At one moment, the camera focuses in on Solomon’s face for several minutes as he has a blank distant look of disbelief and fear, while cicadas sing in the background. A beautifully frightful moment where the viewer would imagine that Solomon is giving up hope and his life could soon come to an end. That is the constant fear of each slave. Will today be my last day alive? There was one scene in particular that was prolonged and left you on the edge of your seat in wondering how long was Solomon going to be left in that condition before someone helped him. Other slaves were too petrified to offer help – he just had to hang in there, literally, and hope he survived. A traumatic scene that would make you wince with absolute empathy.
Solomon is traded off from one master to pay off a debt to Edwin Epps, who is played by Michael Fassbender. As we have been forewarned, the Epps character will be the most brutal and dangerous slave owner ever presented on film. And that warning was accurate. Edwin did not see his slaves as human beings, they were simply property; possessions to torture and treat worse than dogs. When he was bored, he would wake them all up in the middle of the night (after spending 12 hours in the hot sun picking cotton), to dance for him. And each day, he would weigh the pounds of cotton picked by each person, and if they did not meet their quota, they would get whippings. There was one slave that was fodder for lust and hate by Epps, and it was the young girl Patsy, excellently played by Lupita N’yongo. This poor girl was constantly tormented and brutalized by Epps, and despised by his jealous wife. It becomes obvious in due time that Epps was obsessed and in mad love with her, he wanted complete control over her as his number one best worker slave, and his sex slave. The 18th century did not have a diagnosis for manic depressive personality disorders, but there was something more sinister about Epps than his racist evil behavior, foul temper, sadistic games, and alcoholism. What he did to Patsy makes you forget about Solomon Northup, if just for a few moments.
Have you ever seen someone being hurt and you feel their pain too? Well, if you’re susceptible to that level of empathy, you may avert your eyes or cover your ears when you see the heightened level of absolute cruelty placed upon Patsy. It is so heartbreaking and I think this scene could cause people to walk out the theater, if just to have a break from this S&M slavery drama. Michael Fassbender was on fire as Epps and I say this because he completely disappeared into this role effortlessly. As brutal, evil, and pathetic Epps is, Fassbender brought to life a man that today would not be considered a human being. But for Solomon North, eventually, he found the trust in one man, played by Brad Pitt, who could help him deliver an important message to his wife about his circumstances and whereabouts. Solomon was able to escape once he was identified by his friend from New York. And in the scene where Epps was so enraged and tried to stop them from taking away Solomon, his property, Epps hit the summit in demonstrating how volatile, and monstrous he was. And as Solomon departed, the rear view scene was so sad.
Throughout 12 Years, I was impressed by the score from Hans Zimmer. I usually don’t care much about a film’s score, but this film had my attention so completely, that I noticed the score and felt its loud and jarring modern sound, which fit very well with the film. Steve McQueen is obviously the director to make this film. His being British helps to remove him from having a personal ethnocentric bias in softening the movie for American audiences. Being British, he took the bull by the horns and told the story as it is. I dare say that ’12 Years’ is the type of film that should be required viewing in high school or college American history. It is so well made and such a thorough depiction of a true story, it is important for people to see it. In order to move forward as a compassionate and humane society, we have to acknowledge our horrible past. McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a very hard film to watch, and it will leave many people in tears at the end. But we all need to see this. Not only is this an important film, but it’s a masterpiece. – Simone Cromer
In regards to the film’s Oscar chances, it is automatically a Best Picture nominee, along with director, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, editing, adapted screenplay, sound, and cinematography. Putting weight on the history this important film will make by being recognized by the Academy to win at least five Oscars is a bet I’m willing to make. No other film this year is equally heavy and important. My only trepidation is that Years is so realistically brutal, a guilt inducing that many AMPAS members may not have the courage to watch the film. Some may have to walk away for a break, but may not have the energy to go back and finish it. They may just write it off as something just too harsh. And what about Michael Fassbender’s chances of being nominated for an Oscar after being ignored for both ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’? The supporting actor category has a strong record of awarding evil characters. The question is could Edwin Epps perhaps be too horrible of a character to be nominated?
[author image=”http://i44.tinypic.com/2ymwspu.jpg” ]Simone Cromer lives in Ann Arbor, MI and is a cinephile with a diverse interest in films, and a great appreciation for science fiction. She has attended the Toronto Int’l Film Festival regularly since 2004. As the Founder and Editor of Fassinating Fassbender, she has interviewed her favorite actor, Michael Fassbender. She has a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and she will receive her Master’s Degree in Communication from Eastern Michigan University in December 2013. Simone has been actively blogging and reviewing films for a decade.[/author]