12 Years a Slave review: Star Chiwetel Ejiofor, director Steve McQueen find vital truth in human cruelty
Posted November 07, 2013 | By John Serba
’12 Years a Slave’
4 stars (out of 4)
MPAA Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o
Director: Steve McQueen
Run time: 134 minutes
“12 Years a Slave” is raw emotion manifest. One of its many affecting scenes shows Solomon Northup strung up on a noose with just enough slack in the rope to keep his toes on the ground. He performs a perverse ballet in the mud so he will not choke. We hear only the squish of his feet in the wet soil. In the background, other slaves go about their business. The camera stares unflinching at his struggle for an unbearable length of time. It holds long enough that it ceases to be a picture of a man suffering. It becomes a portrait of helplessness, agony, despair and rage.
Steve McQueen directs “12 Years a Slave” with a pure, awful righteousness. Pure, because he depicts cruelty with brutal clarity. Awful, because it’s a true story that must be shared. Solomon Northup was a free man living in Saratoga, New York, when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South in 1841. When he was finally released, he wrote a firsthand account detailing his experiences, and it’s the basis for the film.
McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley’s translation from words to moving images is so powerful, it forces us to question the nature of storytelling itself. Why tell this particular story? Why depict Solomon’s horror in such graphic detail? To remind us of the human capacity for cruelty, perhaps, or to shake people from the perceived safety of their warm, comfortable homes. Those ideas are on the surface, and they’re valuable. But the beating heart of this story is truth without adornment, pure and precious. Truth is what strengthens us, inspires our compassion, gives life meaning beyond the existential.
Chiwetel Ejiofor finds truth in his portrayal of Solomon Northup. His defining moment is declarative: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” he tells another grief-stricken slave. We see Solomon stripped of everything – his wife and children, his career as a violinist, his dignity, his identity. He is beaten and tortured in acts of thoughtless savagery. He must hide his intelligence lest he be further punished. His fellow slaves are murdered, raped, paraded nude in front of plantation owners prior to purchase. They are called beasts and livestock, and likened to baboons – language far more traumatic than the terrible, colloquial N-word, which makes us flinch in other contexts.
There are no straight lines in Ejiofor’s characterization. Solomon is a base amalgam of selflessness and selfishness, of indignation, misery and longing. He also has hope, symbolized by a violin, a gift from the “kind” slave owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who sees humanity in his subjects, but turns a blind eye to greater inhumanities. He’s a good argument for the annihilation of tradition. Ford preaches Sunday sermons to the slaves, and twice McQueen indicts such spiritual hypocrisy by drowning out his discourse with the prevailing sound from the preceding scene – one, a vulgar and degrading song sung by a cretinous plantation worker (Paul Dano), and the other, the wracked sobs of a slave woman separated from her children.
Consequences force Solomon from Ford’s plantation to that of Epps, a noxious cretin whose favorite Biblical passage is the one where resistant subjugates are to be “beaten with many stripes.” Epps is portrayed with disturbing savagery by Michael Fassbender (who also starred in McQueen’s other features, “Shame” and “Hunger”). Lupita Nyong’o plays a young slave, Patsey, the object of Epps’ grotesque affection, and therefore the object of his wife’s (Sarah Paulson) hatred. Patsey comes to Solomon for help, an impossible situation for all parties. Nyongo’s performance is brave and inspiring. She and Ejiofor share several of the film’s definitive dramatic moments.
Other characters turn up in Solomon’s narrative: A slave trader (Paul Giamatti), a wandering Canadian worker-for-hire (Brad Pitt), a pampered “house slave” (Alfre Woodard) speaking of karmic destiny, the slave Robert (Michael K. Williams), whose fate illustrates what happens when one is stricken by fear. The incidental characters offer myriad angles on the truth at hand, be they social, spiritual or political, right or wrong or somewhere in the fog between. Ridley’s script turns the stiff dialect of the times into poetry, and McQueen assures that Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, which captures the natural beauty of rural Louisiana, matches it.
As we age, we better understand the adversities and blessings that define us as individuals. The truth in Solomon Norhtup’s story reflects that, even when the details of his story are extraordinary. The way McQueen tells it brings the human condition into stark focus – Solomon survived his ordeal, and it cost him most everything but his core humanity. The ending is wrenching, unsettling and far from tidy. It feels true. “12 Years a Slave” is difficult to watch, enthralling in its horror, but necessary, and essential. It is not easily forgotten, as it should be.
Source | MLive