12 Years a Slave, 1840s, Academy Award Nominee, Academy Awards, Alfre Woodard, American Civil War, antebellum South, based on a book, Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, cinema, dignity, emancipation, emotional films, Film, forced captivity, freedman, historical drama, Hunger, kidnapped, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbinder, Movies, Oscar nominee, overseers, Paul Giamatti, plantations, Shame, slavery, slaves, Steve McQueen, uplifting films
My Oscar nominee exploration continues with the second Best Picture nominee that I’ve seen, thus far: 12 Years a Slave.
There can be no greater pain, no more terrible turmoil, than to be torn away from family and friends, taken far from their loving arms. I can’t imagine anything worse than waking up in unfamiliar climes, fully aware that somewhere, some immeasurably far distance away, your old life waits for you…that your family and friends wait for you, not knowing your fate. Unless, that is, you were taken from your family and sold into slavery. This, of course, is the central premise of Steve McQueen’s powerful historical drama, 12 Years a Slave.
Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black musician living in New York in 1841, 12 Years a Slave details his struggle to maintain his dignity and sense of self in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Bounced between several different plantations during his twelve years of forced slavery, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must use his considerable wits and courage, as well as his amiable nature, to keep himself alive and ever vigilant for any chance at freedom. Along the way, he meets a host of people: slave-owner and slave, plantation owner and brutal overseer, emancipationist and lynch mob. Most of the people he meets will conspire to either use him for their own ends or will abuse and degrade him as they see fit, although he will also find a few kindred souls along the way like Patsey (Lupita Nyong’O), the fiery female slave that can pick four times the cotton that any man can and Bass (Brad Pitt), the emancipationist who, ultimately, leads to Solomon’s freedom.
12 Years a Slave is one of those rare films that is both unremittingly brutal and grim, yet simultaneously beautiful and hopeful. I’m tempted to compare the film, at least aesthetically, to Braveheart, in that both movies have a way of making epic imagery out of grimy, downtrodden humanity. 12 Years is a much more subtle film, of course, freed of the grandiosity and vengeance tropes that gave Braveheart the veneer of a popcorn film, despite its melancholy subject matter. Here, McQueen distills the horrible legacy of slavery down into one character’s personal journey, making a very large story much more compact, while allowing Solomon to be our guide through this pre-Civil War-era.
From a technical standpoint, 12 Years a Slave is quite beautiful, thanks in no small part to its evocative cinematography. Sean Bobbitt, the director of photography behind McQueen’s previous films Hunger and Shame, as well as Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, has a way of shooting even the ugliest events that highlights the beauty of the surrounding countryside, using lighting in such a way as to make everything positively glow. Shot-wise, McQueen and Bobbitt have a tendency to favor close-ups, especially where Solomon is concerned but that ends up being a pretty wise-move: Ejiofor is an absolutely amazing actor, a performer who can say so much with just a quivering lip and tear-filled eye.
Which leads us, of course, to the stellar ensemble cast. As befits a modern historical drama, 12 Years a Slave is packed to the rafters with top-shelf star talent and more “Oh-that-guy!” pointing than a Woody Allen film. There’s SNL-regular Taran Killam as one of the connivers who kidnaps Solomon; Paul Giamatti as a mean-spirited slavery broker; Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch as a plantation owner that’s just about as “nice” and “fair” as Solomon ever finds; Paul Dano as Ford’s ridiculously venomous overseer, Tibeats (the scene where Solomon whips the shit out of Tibeats has to be one of the single most uplifting moments in the history of moving pictures); Michael Fassbinder (picking up a Best Supporting Actor nod) as the vicious Mr. Epps; American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson as the equally vicious Mrs. Epps; Alfre Woodard as the slave “wife” of another plantation owner; Raising Hope’s Garrett Dillahunt as the treacherous Armsby and the aforementioned Mr. Pitt as Bass, Solomon’s eventual savior.
The acting, across the board, is exceptionally good, but Ejiofar is a complete revelation as Solomon Northup. He is such a visually expressive actor, particularly those big, emotional eyes of his and he conveys a world of character with just a smile, here, or a tear, there. The scene where the camera focuses on Solomon’s face as he sings a spiritual, Ejiofor cycling through more emotion in a few moments than most actors do in an entire film, is amazing. Thus far, I’ve only seen one other Best Actor performance, Christian Bale in American Hustle, and Ejiofor resoundingly mops up the floor with him. This is the kind of performance that not only deserves an Oscar nomination but the actual award, itself. When Solomon finally looks on his family after his time in captivity and says, simply, “I apologize for my appearance but I’ve had a difficult time these past several years,” it’s impossible not to be completely and utterly destroyed: another actor might have made the moment too cloying, too precious. Ejiofor makes each syllable sting with so much pain, sorrow, joy and dignity that they become knives, cutting as much as they comfort.
In fact, Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon is so towering, so absolute, that other worthy performances tend to get a bit lost in the shuffle. Newcomer Nyong’o is perfect as Patsey, radiating a complex mix of sensuality, fear, anger and pride. If anything, I really wish that her character had more screentime: folding the Eliza character into Patsey would have given Nyong’o more screentime and given the film, in general, a stronger female presence. As it is, it’s quite telling that there wasn’t really a leading actress role to give a nomination to. Cumberbatch is excellent as the nicer-than-most slave-owner: there was quite a bit of nuance to his performance, proving that Cumberbatch’s stuffy eccentricities play out quite well on the big screen.
Much has been made of Fassbinder’s portrayal of the slimy Edwin Epps but, for my money, his was mostly a serviceable performance, too given to the kind of odd tics and quirks that Joaquin Phoenix usually uses to better effect. I thought there was much too much flash and a near constant attempt to “show” us the things that Epps was feeling. Ejiofor’s performance is almost completely internal, seeping into his mannerisms and expressions in a very organic manner. Fassbinder, on the other hand, comes across as much more “actorly” and presentational: his performance never seems to truly penetrate through to the character’s soul.
Ultimately, as with any other film (especially any awards nominee), I find myself asking the same questions: Is this really that good? Is this film worth the hype? Will we even remember it in 10-15 years? In the case of 12 Years a Slave, I’m leaning towards “yes” for all of those. McQueen has fashioned a real monster of a film, subtle but powerful, beautiful yet constantly grim and ugly. There are two scenes in the film, in particular, that strike me as being the kind of thing that proves the intrinsic quality and subtly of the film. One scene is the edge-of-the-seat moment where Solomon is hung from the neck in a muddy courtyard and must shift from foot to foot, side to side, for at least an entire day: one false move and he’ll effectively hang himself. The scene is absolutely perfect, nearly Hitchcockian in its perfect marriage of suspense and irony.
The second moment comes from the parallelism of Solomon joyously playing music for the white party at the beginning of the film, as a free man, versus him playing music for another white party, later on, as a slave. We see the difference in Solomon, of course, in his posture and his face, even in the slightly mournful cast to his trademark fiddle. McQueen is also careful, however, to let us see the difference in the very atmosphere, modulating the music so that it becomes not so much a product of Solomon (as in the beginning) but a part of the soundtrack: background music, if you will. Just as Solomon has lost his individuality and become part of the faceless, voiceless horror of slavery, so too has his music been subsumed, made a part of the machinery.
12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to sit through: the brutality, degradation and suffering on display is not sugar-coated, nor is it presented with anything less than the fact-of-live mundanity that slavery, unfortunately, was for many people. Despite everything that the world throws at him, however, Solomon Northup never once loses his personal sense of honor and dignity. He knows that they can take anything away from you – your livelihood, your freedom, even your name – but they can never take your humanity away from you…unless you let them.
Solomon never lets the slavers take away his dignity and it’s to Steve McQueen’s great credit that he never lets the film take it away, either. I’m not sure if 12 Years a Slave really is the best film of 2013 but I can wholeheartedly say that it’s certainly one of them.