“If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.” – Solomon Northup
These words can be found in the very last pages of ‘12 Years A Slave’ and it seems to be the thing that director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) has taken into account the most as his feature brings reality to the brutal on-goings in the book.
12 Years A Slave (2013) Directed by : Steve McQueen
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps
Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey
Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford
Paul Dano as Tibeats
Brad Pitt as Bass
The film opens to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofer) amongst other slaves, working on the sugar cane plantation. A scene is set in regards to his everyday life and what he has to endure. The beginning is not all that far from the end and it sets into a steady pace showing how he ended up in such a predicament.
The tale begins 12 years previous when Solomon has a family and a happy life as a freeman in Saratoga. He is a talented musician which helps ease his way through slavery as the years progresses. It is his ability to play the violin that sees him join an unconventional circus, traveling to slave states (with free papers) and entertaining people across America. One night Solomon is subjected to copious amounts of alcohol and wakes to find himself bound in chains. Held captive by slave traders, Solomon is beaten into submission and is warned to have his life taken from him if he is to mention his background ever again. He is given the name Platt and here is where his heart-wrenching journey begins.
Lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an outstanding performance as Solomon Northup. He is not only likeable but also respectable. It is clear that he is compassionate and cares for the people surrounding him who are in the same situation and are subjected to the same treatment. He uses his initiative to construct and execute plans throughout his captivity and strives to be the freeman he once was. The kind-natured Benedict Cumberbatch plays an elegant and gentile William Ford, treating his slaves with respect. It is easy to like the character of Ford in both the feature and the book. The audience can see and feel his empathy the moment he appears on screen and is reassured throughout his performance that he is a caring soul that has just been raised the American way.
Initially, it seemed that Paul Dano may have been too young for the portrayal of the ill-tempered contractor Tibeats, however, his performance as the slimey American soon discounted all previous doubts. He is easy to hate and sees himself as somewhat superior, despite his lack of general knowledge. Even William Ford, who has employed him, questions his actions and words with an air of disbelief.
Fassbender’s portrayal of plantation owner Epps is simply unforgettable. The character is an empathetic, drunken buffoon and takes pleasure in abusing his workers. He has meticulous and evil methods in regards to the productivity of the slaves on his plantation, whipping those who under achieve their average and constantly making them set higher standards for themselves to avoid punishment. Steve McQueen changed the original story and made it so that Epps has an unhealthy and jealousy-inducing relationship with the young slave girl Patsey. The whole situation results in one of the most barbaric scenes to be ever shown in cinema, where her flesh is stripped off her body by the lashings of a whip. Hating Epps is no challenge; however, you can see the underlying tones of humanity that are there. There are several occasions throughout the feature which you can see Epps’ inner turmoil with himself.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey, the fastest cotton-picker in the whole of the South. She is just as likeable as Solomon himself and instantly grabs the heart-strings of the audience. Patsey is subjected to the most abuse during Solomon’s time under the ownership of Epps and it is noted in the book that Solomon takes a lot of lashings for her. Inevitably she is left to fend for herself, but not before she is broken by Epps and his Mistress.
Fassbender is complimented by Sarah Paulson who plays Epps’ wife. The lust aspect has been introduced by Steve McQueen to reiterate the hatred that she feels and displays for Patsey as a result of jealousy. Several times she strikes the girl and demands that she is to be sold but to no avail. Mistress Epps suspects that Platt is no ordinary slave despite that he has never told her otherwise but she does not act upon her instinct.
The latter part of the film sees the arrival of Bass (Brad Pitt), a white Canadian that is laughed at by his fellow man, partially due to his beliefs about abolishment. He is as kind, if not kinder, than William Ford and soon earns the trust of Northup. It is visible throughout Pitt’s performance that Bass is unsure about helping Northup as he fears the consequences which may be bestowed upon him.
Steve McQueen has produced a film that should go down in history without a fight. He deserves praise and acclaim for courageously showing us the real truth. The entirety of the casting is excellent including the minor roles. It isn’t difficult to understand how he arrived at such decisions by reading the book itself. While reading the book, you may have difficulty visualizing and remembering the fact that this is based on a true story.
The biopic is complimented with an truly emotional score from Hans Zimmer. The director brings the harrowing tale of Solomon Northup to people around the world, not for entertainment but as an education.
Verdict: Oscar Worthy
Review by Marnie | MFO