Review: 12 Years a Slave

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by Carlos Aguilar
October 18, 2013 8:30 AM
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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

Healing is a process more viable for the physical body than for the always-restless memory. Scars and wounds vanish into the past to be replaced by new skin, yet always leaving a mark. As minimal as that trace may be it becomes a permanent record of the pain endured. The size is correlated to that of the injury itself, some being naturally greater than others. And that is the only rational way to describe the faded hurt of a nation ravaged by injustice and by the torturing past that is indelibly present.


How can the people of a certain country accept a defining time in their collective timeline, facts that are too atrocious to be constantly visible but for the same reason impossible to erase. It is perhaps an immoral act to try to forget because until all the wrongs have been judged with the only redeeming force humanity can attain – Truth –no peace can be found . Such a light is the guiding principle in every image, every sound, every line delivered in the devastatingly moving masterpiece that is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

Guarded by an artificial veil of acceptance in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York during the late 19th century, Solomon Northup lived as a free black man with his family enjoying a life of seemingly equal prosperity as his fellow white men. He was educated, a violin virtuoso, respected and untainted by the racial hatred that plagued the southern states. Ironically, that same trusting state in which he naïvely lived and his undeniable musical talent led him to be lured into a trip that would keep him enslaved, away from his wife and kids for an infernal twelve years across several different plantations. Those whom he believed to be his friends sold him into slavery, a condition that he had to accept to survive, and which rid him of any trace of individuality, even his name.

Existing by the name Platt, Solomon discovers the real condition in which those that look like him live. Transformed into a disposable commodity and considered someone else’s property the harrowing journey that aims to break his spirit into submission begins. There are countless poignant episodes crafted by McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley to delve into a distinct perception of slavery, its consequences, and the uniform abominable ignorance that allowed for it become the corrosive evil that it was. No unquestionable villain is ever found; even those who commit the most heinous acts of violence and degradation are inspected with unparallel brutal honesty without a trace of purposeful intention to persuade the viewer into an easy conclusion.

Theophilus Freeman’s (Paul Giamatti) explicit display of naked African-American men and women for sale is condemned with equally unbiased exposition as the indifference and faithful acceptance of the status quo by semi-humane Baptist preacher and a slave owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Both were willing participants in a widely accepted dehumanizing process that allowed them to continue on with their lives without disabling remorse. That indeed is the most unsettling truth about the past, the way people at every level of the chain rationalize and condone one another under the fake cloud of superiority by means of a divine righteousness. 

Although forced to endure such unmerciful treatment Solomon stands as a pillar of hope, a dignified soul that refuses to perish at the face of the terrifying circumstances. Beaten but never broken, he retains a fire to survive longs for the day he will return home. Soon enough his repressed rage leads him to defiantly beat the despicable overseer, John Tibeats ( Paul Dano), an act that leaves him hanging from a lynching noose. His fellow black men, unable to help him, disabled as they are by fear, go about their day while he fights off his imminent death in what becomes one the most haunting images of the entire film.

Perpetually reminded of his inferior value in the eyes of his owners, Solomon is once again exchanged in an act of kindness to save his life. Under the self-indulgent command of Edwin Epps ( Michael Fassbender) he is exposed to unprecedented cruelty enforced with the unholy excuse of being God's mandate. Unflinchingly, for the all the agonizing pain Epps' slaves are put through, McQueen does not pass judgment but rather, he eagerly explores the reasoning --if there is any -- for such anguish to be permitted. Admitting without reservations that the entire length of Solomon’s cinematic ordeal is a heart-wrenching experience testifies to the power of the medium and the participants’ selfless devotion to the story.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender

Leading an outstanding cast is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose performance truly cannot receive enough praise to express its impact. There is nota single false move in his visceral portrayal of a man who has lost everything and found the miraculous strength not to fall into despair. It’s mesmerizing to witness the total willingness of an actor to let himself experience the horror, the debilitating probability of never being free again, and in a scene of pure emotional intensity, even sing along the others afflicted by the same injustice. The closest to a  flawless performance in any film this year. 

Also noteworthy among the impeccable ensemble cast is Fassbender’s take on Epps. McQueen’s long time muse plays the sexually deviant estate owner that justifies his inhumane actions as a duty bestowed on him by divine grace. Vicious and apparently nonchalant, he drinks himself away to obliterate the thoughts of what he has done and to bear the sadistic demands of his jealous wife Mary, played with matching savagery by Sarah Paulson. Her preferred target is Patsey, a young slave who is unwillingly Mr.Epps’ object of desire. Played by Lupita Nyong’o with fervent passion and hopeless desperation, she delivers one of the most riveting performances of the year, one that unquestionably deserves every accolade.

Above all the singular outstanding elements in the production, one name that shines as heroic among the rest. Director Steve McQueen has covered himself in a heavy coat of bravery. He collected the bravery not ot hesitate, never to show the violence in a gratuitous manner, but with the intention to expose the viewer to an experience that serves nothing but  the Truth. No sugar-coating or artificial euphemisms here, not in language nor in imagery. Sean Bobbitt’s entrancing beautiful cinematography collides with the crude reality not only of racial relations but also of horrifying dehumanizing behavior. Hans Zimmer's score creates a haunting atmosphere for a vision like no other film about slavery has ever achieved.

Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the most vivid retelling of a time that America believes forgotten but that lingers in the subconscious like the most stubborn scar. Not to see this film would be not only deprivation of experiencing a masterful work of art, but also an irresponsible act of denial of the nation's collective memory of those stripped of their humanity.

Originally published in Filmophilia.com


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