12 Years a Slave, by Steve McQueen | 2013

YOU MIGHT AS WELL ASK WHAT THE DIFFERENCE IS

BETWEEN A WHITE MAN AND A BABOON.
EDWIN EPPS, in Twelve Years a Slave 
One might ask and not find an answer, was my reply to Edwin Epps’s words of wisdom. Of course he spoke them in his favour, comparing black men to animals, like the monster he was. Epps was the last southerner to lay a hand on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the man who wrote the book in which 12 Years a Slave is based on. The memoir, written in 1853, is a first-person account of Solomon’s life, from his kidnapping in Washington in 1841, to his return to freedom in 1853, after 12 years of slavery. Several investigations led historians to believe there’s a great deal of truth in his writings, and having read the book, I’d say John Ridley stayed as close as one can to its narrative, thus intensifying every scene with the power of reality behind it. 
Solomon’s journey is almost unbelievable: he was born a free man in New York; he had a respectful job as violinist, and a family; one day he was offered a high paying job by two circus promoters; he then travels with them to Washington DC, only to find himself chained in a dark cell and sold like live stock to the highest bidder as a result. But before that, the sellers had to make sure he was fit to be a slave: they stripped him of his clothes and other possessions; took away his identity by giving him a new name; and forced him to forget his past life, and admit he was a slave. His hope and inner strength prevented him from doing so, but he soon realised that, for his own safety, he had to at least not contradict nor deny that he was not a free man.

His first master was William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man Solomon describes as a kind, noble and candid Christian, but whose influences and associations blinded him from the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. However his fair treatment didn’t last long, for Ford was in debt to John Tibeats (Paul Dano), so he leased Solomon to him. The animosity between the two lead to a couple moments of tension, the last one being depicted in the book with a particularly intense and suspenseful narrative that ends with a frenetic escape to meet Ford, which is nothing short of nerve shattering. It is then that he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) – and if Solomon sighs of relief for being free from Tibeats, is only because he has no idea who he’s about to face. 
It is no wonder that Solomon often refers to the grave as the only resting place for a slave – the level of abuse he and others like him have suffered is atrocious beyond words. While watching the film, I avoided the screen many times, but McQueen never turns his camera away. He faces the brutality head on, shining a raw light on what happened at that farm in Louisiana, and so many others alike. This doesn’t mean that the violence is excessive or uncalled for, in fact this particular director is gifted with an acute sense of balance; something we already got to witness and admire in his previous films, them too with difficult subjects. 
Giving depth to a strong direction is a hand picked cast. Cumberbatch, Giamatti and Dano have little screen time, but they’ve proven before just how great supporting actors they can be, leaving a strong impression with just a few scenes. Same goes for Adepero Oduye, who plays Eliza – a black woman who was separated from her children when sold to Ford, and to whom Solomon dedicates a considerable part of his memoir. Also Lupita Nyong’o, who embodies one of Epps’s slaves, towards whom he has a special affection. Her performance shakes you to the core.

Finally, Fassbender and Ejiofor are titans in every scene, facing each other with building anger and knowledge of each other’s weaknesses. Words like remarkable and gut wrenching apply, but seem overused – then again they are better seen than read about, anyway. Also of note is the genius in the soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer, and its intricate relationship with the film. Reminded me of the abrasive and alarming sounds of There Will Be Blood, which successfully work here, too. Lastly, Jonh Legend‘s rendition of Roll Jordan Roll and Move are worth listening, on repeat.
Above all, 12 Years a Slave brings to life events that must not be forgotten, like every other atrocity recorded in History. What was done to all those people is beyond comprehension and reason, and there’s no excuse for, no way to justify it, not really. Yet for every bit of disgraceful ignorance they displayed, the slavers got one thing right: men are not all equal, for I am nothing like them – we don’t share a single trait, if not similar anatomy.
I like to believe there’s a kindness to every man, a warm particle in everyone’s soul that justifies and demands forgiveness – but some men certainly try very hard to prove me wrong. Men like the ones that have treated Solomon and all alike worse than cockroaches, men like every sleazy being who walks this earth calling himself human, yet ceasing every opportunity to prove otherwise. 12 Years a Slave awakens in me a strange anger towards them all, and a sense of powerlessness that is only subsided by what the good and honourable people in it have achieved. One can only hope that Bass was right, and that eventually justice comes to get them all. 
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  • Brittani

    Great review! The performances in this one really blew me away, I hope they take the ensemble award at the SAGs tonight.

  • Josh

    Wonderful review! In a great year for film, this was one of my favorites, even though it missed my top 10. I’d love to see the cast recognized this awards season, as well McQueen.

    • thanks Josh, and I can see how it didn’t make your top ten – I’m finding myself loving a great deal of films from last year!