From living the good life as a master violinist in New York to becoming enslaved and sold to a plantation in the South, one man never lost the will to live.
British film director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” follows the story of Solomon Northup, a freeman, kidnapped and forced into slavery.
“I don’t want to survive; I want to live,” says Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (“American Gangster,” 2007).
In pre-Civil War New York, Solomon is approached by two men who promise to pay him handsomely if he performs in their traveling musical show. While the men celebrate the deal with drinks, they drug Solomon. He awakens to find himself shackled at the wrists and ankles and confined to a holding cell.
After he is badly beaten in the makeshift jail, he is told that he is a runaway slave named Pratt who has been caught. He insists that he is a freeman named Solomon, but that only gets him another beating.
McQueen (“Shame,” 2011) does an excellent job portraying the contrast between freedom and enslavement. Unlike other films that focus on slavery, such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” McQueen’s film does not rely on antics and unrealistic action scenes. The dialogue and body language of every character allows the film to draw the audience in with little action or music.
Arguably the strongest scene in the film comes after Solomon is sold to a cotton plantation. He openly disagrees with a slave overseer, who immediately decides to hang him. Solomon is left with a noose around his neck while standing on his tiptoes. He is left there for hours while other slaves work in the background, unwilling or unable to help him as he struggles for air.
The skills of cinematographer Sean Bobbit (“Hunger,” 2008) are on full display in this scene and the film as a whole. While Solomon struggles for air, the camera stays fixed on him, the scene lasts for about two minutes without cutting. The angle of the camera allows the audience to see slaves working around Solomon, trying their best to ignore the horror happening in front of them.
Authenticity is a major factor in the success of the film. The scenery and costumes show an accurate representation of life on a slave plantation. More importantly, nothing seems staged.
There are numerous scenes in which slaves are whipped. The reactions of the characters are not overly dramatic, but their body language and facial expressions say more than enough.
Very little music is played throughout the film; however the slaves are often shown singing songs as they work in the fields. A capella style music provides the audience with an insight into the culture of slaves. They are forced to perform back-breaking labor and are routinely humiliated by the whites for entertainment purposes, but they still stay strong and stick together by joining each other in song.
The film features a number prominent actors, including Brad Pitt (“Inglourious Basterds,” 2009) who plays a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist who befriends Solomon during a construction project despite Solomon’s mistrust of white people, as they often earn his trust only to betray him.
Michael Fassbender’s performance as a cruel slave master named Mr. Epps is worthy of an oscar nod for supporting actor. Fassbender (“Prometheus,” 2012) plays a deeply troubled slave owner who drinks heavily and often beats Solomon and other slaves for little or no reason.
Sarah Paulson (“Serenity,” 2005) delivers a solid performance as Mistress Epps,who is wildly jealous of a female slave name Patsey played by Lupita Nyong’o (“In my Genes,” 2009) Mistress Epps believes that Patsey and Master Epps are having an affair, which causes her to treat the slave girl with cruelty.
The film is at times very hard to watch, as intense scenes of slaves being whipped and ridiculed by their masters’ forces the audience to confront the evils of slavery.
The major accomplishment is that despite the graphic scenes, the audience is unable to turn away.
Rated R for violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality, and runs for 134 minutes.
5 out of 5