Article By: Dan Clark Freedom is one of those buzzwords that has been thrown around a lot lately. How we define its reach, and what measures we should take to protect it are debates that have gone on for generations. Often the accusation of taking away one’s freedom is used to challenge the creation of questionable policies in order to rile up the opposition. In Steve McQueen’s latest directorial effort 12 Years a Slave the idea of removing an individual’s freedom is not just inane rhetoric, but an appalling reality that led to a remarkable story of the willingness to survive the cruel nature of humanity.
12 Years a Slave recounts the true life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery. Considering its subject matter and early praise 12 Years a Slave does have the potential to fall victim to its own success. A film that could be filled with self-righteous melodrama that waits with bated breath for Academy voters to claim it this generation’s remarkable achievement. Thankfully it avoided those downfalls. McQueen brings his trademark unforgiving directorial style to craft a film that has an emotional resonance so palpable it will leave you in utter disarray. It is bursting with dynamically intense performances that alarm and inspire. In nearly every aspect 12 Years a Slave is filmmaking at its finest.
Northup’s story is one that serves as a reminder to the abundance of gifts we take for granted. The idea of awakening and finding yourself in a dimly lit room where your ability to movie is hindered by the cold dead chains clinging to your beaten body is something we more commonly associate with horror films than reality. Exemplifying this tragedy is the knowledge of the even more hostile road that lay waiting. Seeing the process of the slave trade, a practice where people are treated like lambs to the slaughter and families are torn apart with a mumbled whimper, is nothing new for cinema. Seeing Northup’s rightful claims for freedom fall on deaf ears does provide an addition level helplessness that elevates this story beyond similar tales.
Part of what brings such an authenticity to this tale is where the source material originates from. Screenwriter John Ridley was given the task to adapt the original 12 Years a Slave memoirs that were written by Solomon Northup himself. Having a firsthand account to refer to gives the film a perspective that may have been otherwise impossible to gain. Character’s actions are not forcefully updated to fit today’s more modern sensibilities. Much of the dialog sounds almost Shakespearean with its rich complex structure. The dialect is so unique it’s like listening to the English language being redefined.
Brandishing words of such a high accord requires actors who can maintain this candid approach. This cast is full of such actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads this ensemble with a commanding performance that will surely land him future accolades. Ejiofor plays Northup with this unyielding sense of might. Though he is forced to live in the most undignified of circumstances, he continues to carry the pride he has rightfully earned for himself. It is not that he is unaffected by his heartbreaking circumstance. As he is physically and psychosocially worn down he becomes this broken shell of a man. When he is forced to witness the mutilation of his fellow slaves his only comfort lay in the hopes that he would one day see his family again. Seeing Ejiofor transform from these distinguished gentlemen into this shattered hopeless soul is an amazing feat. It is a transformation that is ever so gradual until the closing moments when the embodiment of his stolen life presents itself heartrending fashion.
We see that devolution take place as Northup is forced through the slave trade. He is sold at auction to a tender man by the name of Ford, played by the infamous Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is unique as he appears to be troubled by much of the injustice slavery brings, nevertheless he does not go as far as to condemn its actions. Witnessing a mother being pulled away from her children undoubtedly has an effect on him, but he also washes that guilt away by recognizing inevitability of such an action. He preaches the kindness of God’s word to his slaves, and is not one who finds favor in physically harming them. He walks a fine line as he does not wish to upset the status quo. Cumberbatch works here in this more subdued role. In a film of big performances it is the ideal counterbalance needed to allow others to standout.
That counterbalance is especially necessary as Northup is sold to a much harsher slave owner played by Michael Fassbender. This is the third time Fassbender and McQueen have worked together and this may have yielded the best performance yet. Fassbender is frightening as the sadistic master who finds sick pleasure in tormenting his slaves. He too wields the bible as a tool, he however uses it’s as justification for the mistreatment of his property. Lupita Nyong’o plays the major target of that mistreatment in a breakout performance. She brings a childlike innocence that she tries desperately to hold onto. Nearly every performance small or large is on point. The only one that feels artificial is Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist. His role comes out of left field and is rather out of place with the rest of the film. Pitt can never capture the attitude the film lives in, and his lack of conviction does a disservice to what could have been some of the more poignant scenes in the film.
Clearly the biggest key to this film’s success is the man behind the camera. McQueen is a lover of the long take and his uses that technique with great effect. His camera is unrelenting as he brings you up close and personal to the tribulations of slavery. In a scene that will go down as one of the year’s best Northup’s life literally hangs in the balance. McQueen stages the shot stunningly as Northup clings to life in the foreground and life in the background goes on as normal. You want to leap into the frame and save him—holding him up to relieve him from his agony. All you can do is witness the struggle. It is moments like this that make 12 Years a Slave into a full-on gut punch experience. In addition to McQueen’s technical skill with the camera the enhancement of Hans Zimmer’s score and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography engross you even further. Zimmer’s score is unlike anything he has done in quite a while. It has a piercing edge to it that increases your discomfort level. In the brief moments of tranquility it has a softening stature that eases some gaping wounds. Bobbitt’s cinematography uses a great deal of natural lighting to bring the mood to just the right level. There are some majestic shots of nature that seem to provide Northup some brief moments of serenity in an otherwise miserable existence.
When a movie like 12 Years a Slave comes along people often ask if there was a point to all these repulsive acts. Is it nothing more than snuff looking for sympathy, or does it all mean something. I wholeheartedly believe there is a great deal of significance to this picture. While there is no doubt the film challenges you in nearly every frame, that challenge provides a window into a world we seldom confront. We see men who recognize the injustice in front of them, yet are unwilling to act outside their own self-interests. This is more than a harsh reminder of what happens when good men choose to do nothing. It is also a full illustration into what our civilization can yield; from our ability to destroy to our ability to survive, from the power of our love to the destruction or our hate, and from the restriction of our bondage to the glory of our freedom. 12 Years a Slave is a comprehensive look into what we are capable of, and it is a look that should not be missed.