Regency Enterprises/Film4/Plan B Entertainment
Directed by Steve McQueen
Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Bill Pohlad
Screenplay by John Ridley
Based on “Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
Let me say this up front so that you won’t waste your time reading this review: if you’re the type of movie goer whose mantra is “When I go to see a movie I just want to turn off my brain and be entertained” then you should give 12 YEARS A SLAVE a pass. And I’m not saying that to put you down. Your movie choices are your own and God Bless. But 12 YEARS A SLAVE simply isn’t that kind of movie where you can turn off your brain. It won’t let you. It’s not mental bubble gum that you enjoy while it’s on the screen and then can barely remember what it was about the next day. And it’s not a casual date night movie. It’s not a movie you approach as light entertainment. I actually hesitate to call 12 YEARS A SLAVE an entertainment because of the subject matter and the way the story is told. It’s a movie that transports you right into the middle of the hell of slavery. It doesn’t turn away from the brutality, violence and dehumanization of slavery. I honestly haven’t had feelings like this watching a movie since I saw “The Passion of The Christ.” Unlike “Django Unchained” which uses slavery as a backdrop for its pulp spaghetti western inspired revenge epic, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is about the pure horror of slavery from start to finish and never once during its 134 minutes does it let you forget that.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York in the Year of Our Lord 1841. Solomon supports his wife and two children as a professional violin player. He’s a true gentleman of education and manners, quiet spoken and compassionate. He’s a man of property who owns his own home and he’s treated with respect by his white and black neighbors alike. So Solomon doesn’t attach any nefarious doings to two seemingly respectable white men who approach him about touring with their travelling show. The pay is good and they assure him he’ll be back home by the time his family returns from their own out of town trip. Solomon agrees.
Solomon goes out for dinner and drinks with his newfound friends and passes out from what he assumes is too much drink. Actually he’s been drugged and when he awakens it’s in chains as he’s been sold into slavery. His protests that he is a free man only earns him hideously savage beatings. Renamed ‘Platt’ he’s transported along with other Shanghaied free black men and women to New Orleans where he is purchased by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and taken to work on his plantation. Master Ford actually isn’t that bad a master, Solomon says to Eliza (Adepero Oduye) whose children have been sold to another plantation. Eliza points out to Solomon with wickedly barbed common sense that just by the very way Solomon speaks it’s obvious he isn’t just another uneducated field nigger but Master Ford pointedly ignores that fact since that means he might have to acknowledge some facts that could land him in jail.
Solomon’s real trials are still yet to come when in order to save his life from a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano) Ford has to sell him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who demands that his slaves pick 200 pounds of cotton a day. Each. If they don’t they are whipped. If that wasn’t horrific enough, the slaves are used as living pawns in a vicious war between Epps and his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson.) The main pawn being Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) a beautiful slave girl Epps uses as a spittoon for his sperm, brazenly flaunting it in front of his wife. Not only does Patsey have to endure being raped by him but suffer frenzied attacks from Mary. Solomon has to walk a fine line with the Epps, both of whom are clearly insane and possibly derive some kind of sexual satisfaction from their mutual abuse of their slaves. Solomon clings to the shreds of hope that somehow, someway he’ll be able to get word up north and get somebody, anybody to come down south with his papers proving he’s a free man and save him from this waking nightmare.
I can’t emphasize enough that 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a difficult movie to sit through. Some may question if we really need a movie this graphic in its depiction of slave life on a southern plantation and I think we do. Sometimes movies shouldn’t be all about having a good time. It should be about making us feel and think about things we’d rather not feel or think about and on that level, this movie succeeds magnificently.
I really can’t pick out one actor over the other to award the acting honors to as everybody brings their A game to the court. I’ve enjoyed Chiwetel Ejiofor in other movies such as “Kinky Boots” “Serenity” and “Dirty Pretty Things” and in this movie, just as in those three he uses his incredibly expressive eyes to maximum effects, especially in a gutpunch of a scene where through his joining in singing a spiritual with the other slaves we realize that he has accepted his fate and committed himself body and soul to being a slave.
Michael Fassbender is utterly demonic as Epps and never less than believable. It would have been way too easy to have turned Epps into a mustache twirling Simon Legree but the complicated relationship he has with his wife and Solomon allows him to explore his character in interesting ways. Like many of the other white characters in the movie, Epps is aware that there’s something radically different about this slave. It’s that difference that causes Epps to alternately elevate Solomon at times and at others try to kill him.
Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey is nothing less than extraordinary. This is the kind of film debut that earns actors and actresses Academy Awards. There are some really disturbing scenes involving Patsey and Lupita Nyong’o handles them with sensitivity and real emotion. I can’t sing her praises enough.
Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t have a major role here but he more than makes the most of his screen time. This is a guy who I can easily see having a career like Michael Caine or Albert Finney as he’s that good. Michael K. Williams from ‘The Wire’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ has a pivotal cameo here as does Brad Pitt.
So should you see 12 YEARS A SLAVE. If I could I’d pay for all of you to see it, that’s how important a movie I think this is. But I also have to be fair to those of you who may be too sensitive for the horrendous brutality depicted so graphically and do not wish to see such. And there are many scenes of graphic violence. I can’t put it any plainer than that.
But if you want to see a movie that has the courage to not sugarcoat or trivialize the cruel, soulless brutality of slavery and is relentless in showing the atrocities done then by all means go see 12 YEARS A SLAVE as this is about a true horror story. One we all still live with today.
Rated R for extremely graphic violence