12 Years a Slave (2013) is the latest offering from Steve McQueen, of Hunger and Shame fame.
The film begins with Simon Northup in bondage cutting sugar cane and trying to pen a letter. At night, a woman kisses him and gets him to give her a hand job. Neither are satisfied by the endeavor. The film jumps to Northup with his family. His wife and daughter leave him to find some work as a musician. He meets a pair of men and earns a great sum of money. At the end of their tour, they get him drunk and he wakes up in chains.
This film is as harrowing as the title suggests, but it moves well beyond the "slavery is bad" thing. It features the, much obscured, slavery passages of the bible alongside beautiful and hopeful gospel songs of the slaves. Twelve Years focuses its characters and the realities of the period. Perhaps the only slight letdown in this film is executive producer Brad Pitt who delivers a solid performance but seems really out of place.
Simon Northup, declared Platt by his owners, tries to maintain his character in a deplorable position. In trying to maintain his character, Northup makes several well meaning decisions that become questionable as the film moves on. He's sincerely helpless during most of this film and haunted by his memories of freedom in a few choice scenes. Chiwetel Ejiofor will likely win Best Actor for this and I couldn't agree more. His haunted portrayal underscores the common insanities of the time.
Patsey is the main female slave in the film. She is the favorite of her master, Edwin Epps. She recognizes the strength of integrity in Northup and bonds with him. Her savage treatment really drives the tension between Edwin and Northup which leads to many of his more noteworthy acts. Lupita Nyong'o delivers a haunting performance that really drives home the weight of Northup's decisions.
Edwin Epps is the main antagonist and 'bad' slave owner. He is frightening in his righteous belief that he is doing God's work. His manic insantic would be comical, and sometimes borders on it, if his character weren't so menacing. Michael Fassbender really brings it home with this this character who could have easily been the downfall of this film.
Best Costume should also probably go to this piece as the period attire is excellent. Every shot, no matter how terrifying is beautifully staged and shot. This is most exemplified in an extended botched hanging scene that lingers for an uncomfortable amount of time.
In the End
Northup made several choices to stay alive during his confinement, but there is one decision completely unrelated to that which haunts the rest of the film. The end text summaries are also incredibly depressing.
There was a point, halfway through the film, where my desensitization just broke down. This film features explicit torture as well as a rape scene which are horrifying, especially since it and worse actually happened. Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay are also probably going to be won by this one. I've heard McQueen's other films are just as rough and I plan to watch one of them in a few months and the other a few months after that...See 12 Years a Slave if you enjoy historical dramas or intense characterization!
Next Time: Nominee Number