Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Chris Chalk, Michael K. Williams, Liza J. Bennett, Kelsey Scott, Alfre Woodard, Quvenzhané Wallis, Devyn A. Tyler, Cameron Zeigler, Rob Steinberg, Jay Huguley, Christopher Berry, Bryan Batt, Bill Camp, Dwight Henry, Deneen Tyler and Ruth Negga
It took a British filmmaker to come up with such an uncompromising and devastating account of the shame that was, slavery in America. Slavery has existed throughout the history of this world. If you are a reader or have even slightest amount of interest in history then you know all about it. Slave trading in Africa was the worst, it also existed in the Middle East. Human beings always have the affinity to subjugate people who they think are lower or beneath them. That somehow the class differences or difference of any kind directly implies that those people are not meant to stand up or next to them. Its a basic shame. Our differences are not meant to draw us apart but rather bring us together. But we will never understand this basic fact. Country "A" will always look at country "B" in a particular way. People who speak particular language, follow particular customs or identify themselves with a particular religion would always be looked down upon. Its a sad, sad reality. Its a cruel, very cruel world. I have learned to never judge a person by such differences, why should I? As an outsider when I look at the problems of America, racism is something that affects me the most on human level. There are other issues they are facing for sure, there are many issues we all are facing. But when there is such a widespread and collective attitude regarding people of color, it is alarming. The very slavery that is shown in this film may have died in America now but it still exists in various forms. When you snatch the basic rights of people just because they are black, then you have no right to call yourself a human being. Who exactly are we to decide what and how people of a certain race should or should not do? When is this going to change? Unarmed civilians walking in the streets will be killed by police just because they happen to be black. Any approaching black person will be mistaken for a thug and killed in the name of self-defense. Stereotypes, narrow-mindedness, depravity, shame!
To make things worse, people pretend that such problems never exist. When you don't have the basic realisation of an issue than you never think its an issue. But it is, whether you like it or not. When 12 Years a Slave was released, cynics talked about how it was implied to at all cost respond positively because this film was based on slavery. "Slavery is bad", they hated the fact that this film had already established its motif. As if it was the first time or the first attempt to raise such an issues. Is slavery not the absolute worst? Is it not the most atrocious thing a person can do beside killing? If you don't want to be disturbed or questioned then you can just continue living in the bubble, I hear its a very peaceful place. Slavery existed whether you like it or not, it reflects on our society even now. History remains as such despite your personal quibbles. Nations were formed on slavery, oppression and genocide. Stop being such angels, realize the importance of individuality, freedom of existence and freedom in general.
Now that I got that out, "12 Years a Slave" is a British/American historical drama directed by Steve McQueen. It is adapted from the 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup and is written by John Ridley. 12 Years a Slave generated great amount of buzz and praise from its fall festivals screenings, went on to become critics' darling and won awards given to it for importance. Awards are supposed to be given for achievements, not importance but that basically defines Oscars and such awards. Not that this film wasn't great but to award something for its importance or being inclined to do so is very condescending. 12 Years a Slave won picture, adapted screenplay and supporting actress Oscar for Lupita Nyong'o to my delight. When I look back, I am thankful to the filmmaker and his entire team for bringing such a film. The fact that it got such widespread attention for the very wrongful aspect I just talked about is ironic but a win-win situation nevertheless. I for once don't remember watching a recent film that hit me in such a brutal way which happened to be based on an important historical event/time period. The very fact that McQueen and Ridley never made this into a cloying, obvious and didactic account is an achievement in itself. It is respectful in a sense that it honors the very person whose account is being adapted for the film without resolving to the clichéd techniques of either making the issue bigger than it is or the character in broad strokes. 12 Years a Slave is brutal but it doesn't assaults our senses for negative reasons. It never takes the easy way out either or compromises the integrity of what and who it is representing. This is a film which, if singled out for its subject, you will be inclined to further talk about how unbelievably excellent it is. How it seems like a miracle that such a film exists let alone widely acclaimed.
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free man working as carpenter and a fiddle player in 1841. He has a wife and two children and lives in New York. Northup has respect and social standing among the community he lives in. One day, some men offer him an important job as a musician which he accepts. They instead drug and take Northup, who finds himself in chains upon waking up. He is about to be sold into slavery. Northup is shipped along with many other black men, women and children. He is bought, he suffers, he survives. That is the cycle he and others goes through. Unless those people were dead, they survived. Somehow, they just survived. Kept under such conditions that would shame even the worst of the worst. Like animals, left to rot and without the basic care. They have to wake up and work under such awful conditions. Work and work until they couldn't take it anymore and then repeat that for eternity. They were beaten for not delivering enough, for even stopping to breathe a little. The worst thing about those slaves wasn't that they had to work more than they could or that they were kept in such shameful conditions but the way they were treated to perceived as. Once bought, those slaves were treated as private properties and not human workers. Some slave owners considered it their right, others as the way these people were meant to be treated. There were also those who were by very nature, evil. Perversity had plagued their souls and flesh. To them, owning slaves was more of their own sadistic satisfaction and indulging them into fulfilling such disgusting desires was all they cared for. That was the time when the social conscience, the basic day-to-day life and mass understanding conveyed that those Negros were meant to serve and that is all. That these people had no lives of their own nor any right to have a life.
Plantation owners whipped and whipped. Plantation workers suffered and they suffered. In a scene that shook my soul, Northup is hanged for retaliating against a racist and verbal carpenter. That entire scene was utterly uncomfortable and very hard to watch. Just a slip and he will die. Northup is left to suffer there while life around him proceeds as it always does. His fellow slaves can't do anything or they will suffer as well. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit focuses on that moment through a quiet and distant lens. Placing him in the background, just another part of the landscape and the frame hanging there. The silence is disrupted by the noise of the wind and insects. Time passes but Northup continues to suffer. The film itself is presented in a similar way. The passage of time isn't stressed upon but realized. You aren't aware of how much time had passed or which day it is during the film. Sun comes up and it goes down. That in particular evoked such an unflinching sense of isolation and confinement. A feverish feeling you couldn't shake off. 12 Years a Slave is a violent take but the violence is used in particular instances. When Northup is beaten in the beginning, the noise of the whip made me jump out of my skin several times. When Patsey (Nyong'o) is beaten as the blood from her back literally sprays out with every single whip, I couldn't look at the screen. Imagining this for thousands and thousands of similar people makes me want to scream uncontrollably. This film might be from Northup's perspective, it still resonates on other levels. Violence, oppression and suffering is in our blood. I am pretty sure that one isn't so cold as to not be moved or devastated by what is shown in this film. When the slave owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender) rapes Patsey as she lies down quietly with tears in her eyes and the realization that nobody is going to hear her screams or be able to do anything about it, how can't that make you cry for thousands of such women?
Talking about performances, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender were all my favorites in their respective lead/supporting categories. Ejiofor as Northup is incredible. He is able to convey so much anguish, anger and fear through his expressions. The words that Ejiofor speaks have weight. His entire transformation, from a free man to a scared, bound slave is brilliant. Performance of his career, Ejiofor stuns in a virtuoso portrayal. Then you have Lupita Nyong'o, a newcomer. Her part in the film may not be a lead but it is as important as any. For a limited character, Nyong'o leaves a lasting impact. I was surprised by how for a new actress, Nyong'o was able to fully immerse herself in the part. When an actor isn't an actor anymore but only the character he/she is trying to portray, they have done their job. Patsey's screams, her suffering and the brutality she faces, all heartbreaking. But her innocence and simplicity in the face of such adversity even more destroying. Nyong'o reduced me to tears, her naturalistic performance, the sense of slowly conveying the emotions rather than rapidly acting them out won me over. I was so glad when she walked up the stage at the Oscars in her fairytale dress with that surprised look on her face, pure beauty and innocence. Her speech in itself so humbled and perhaps the most real out of all. I couldn't be more happy and more in tears. And then you have Michael Fassbender, McQueen's frequent collaborator delivering another strong performance. He too disappears so far into the evil of his character, his every stare and uttering of words so terrifying that it sends chills down your spine. He makes his present felt. There are also other good performances to be found in the film like Sarah Paulson as Epps' wife, Adepero Oduye and Alfre Woodard. An amazing ensemble of actors who understood what they were doing. Every actor remained true to the parts they were playing. The only part of the ensemble that didn't work was Brad Pitt. I won't say it was a negative but compared to the other actors and the characters they were playing, he seemed a bit too mainstream and obvious choice for that part.
12 Years a Slave has excellent cinematography. Beautifully captured plantation landscape, the swamps. The only amount of real beauty which you will find in the film. By capturing the natural beauty that surrounded them in all its glory, the depravity and filth of slave owners seemed even more severe. Hell in paradise. There are very soft camera movements, nothing is hurried. Some of them draws you in, other draws you out. The editing itself which I talked about briefly is amazing in the film. The screenplay is very richly written, the dialogues carried the emotions or the lack of, the film itself carried the anguish and brutality. The score by Hans Zimmer for once evoked some emotions. I will also mention the production design as well as the costumes. The way those slave owners lived with their lavish clothing and interiors seemed dirty for some reason. The colors appeared dimmer and less striking as the film went on. I liked how everything was created just like a historical epic is, fully realized lifestyle, interiors and exteriors but they weren't the centre of attention. 12 Years a Slave isn't the most easiest film to watch or endure. By the time the film reaches its end, you have followed Northup in this excruciating journey, survived to return but not feeling the same as you did. An irreversible experience which one can't undo. People change when they face hard times in life. It is almost unimaginable to think about these people and what they must have went through. Those who survived, how they looked at life or other humans? There must have been many Patseys waiting and calling for their own death, unable to endure more cruelty and degradation. Many more Northups waiting to return to their families.
Steve McQueen's best film so far isn't there to comfort you. It is not directed towards a particular audience, to make them feel good about themselves. It is a masterpiece, highly devastating account of the slaves kept in such horrors and horrific conditions. Treated like animals, their basic rights taken. For a violent film, 12 Years a Slave also feels poetic and meditative in places. For a film where the evil takes such ridiculous forms, it also feels ever so humbled and simply humane. It is perfect on every level, extraordinary achievement and supreme filmmaking. One of the very best films of 2013 and the decade. A superb biography and more, harrowing and shattering.