Illuminated by the dazzling and substantially detailed imagery typically associated with up-and-coming director Steve McQueen, in addition to a slew of electrifying, immensely powerful performances. “12 Years a Slave” is ironically every bit as watchable as it is difficult to witness. Anchored by a true story so harrowing and unbelievable that it’s hard to acknowledge the source material as fact. It is a tale surrounding abduction, inhumanity, and slavery, and is without question not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. That being said, its content, although delicate, is extremely important and should be absorbed and remembered by all those with a shred of compassion. Very rarely does a film triumph not only as a motion picture, but as a piece of history come alive. “12 Years a Slave” is a prime example of this achievement.
Of course, we’d all like to forget what is easily one of our species shadiest, most ignorant times. Which can be grounds for the reason why there are so little films of any real substance regarding this subject. It’s a shame considering how vital the mistakes we make are to our insight and progression. Thankfully, the director of “12 Years a Slave” Steve McQueen has provided a veritable, unflinching look at what is perhaps humankind’s greatest error. It may not be easy to watch or sit well with those of us who don’t like to be reminded of our weaknesses. To see what we are all capable of when we lose our humanity isn’t pretty after all. However, it is impossible for light to exist without darkness and vice versa. McQueen comprehends this truth fully and displays both valiantly. These opposites might not be balanced throughout, but when faced with the choice, we will always search out the bright spots, no matter how arduous the journey. Positive will always trump negative, no matter how heavily outmatched or discouraged.
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his family in upstate New York. A skilled carpenter and excellent fiddler, Solomon is approached by two men hoping to lure him into accepting a job offer in Washington DC. Upon agreeing and travelling to Washington with the two men. Northup performs as instructed and is paid for his work. One night while out celebrating with his newly found friends, Northup is drugged. Waking up the following day, he slowly comes to the realization that he has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Transported on a ship to New Orleans, Solomon has no idea how long he will remain captive, or when or if he will ever see his family again.
For a majority of the cinema going public, director Steve McQueen has seemingly rose to these dizzying heights out of no where. But for those of us who have been with the immensely talented director since his inception in 2008 with “Hunger,” his skyrocket to stardom is no surprise. McQueen looks poised to finally garner an Oscar nomination with “12 Years a Slave,” although his previous outings such as the aforementioned “Hunger” and more recently “Shame” are equally as impressive.
One thing McQueen has consistently made apparent throughout his first two full-length features is that his ability to handle uncomfortable material knows no bounds. And with “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen not only maintains his stance, but asserts it with an exclamation point. There was no shortage of questionable, unsettling, hazardous, or even controversial topics for McQueen to tackle while adapting Solomon Northup’s memoir, whether it be violence, racism, slavery, sexual abuse, and so on. With this dramatized biopic, McQueen certainly didn’t cut corners or leave any distressing issues out. He’s managed to put together a disturbing, upsetting, cringe-worthy, endearing epic without compromising the integrity or authenticity of its source material. Although I have to admit, the uplifting moments are undeniably bittersweet.
As impressive and truthful as the adaptation is, thematically and structurally. The film’s technological facets and cinematic aspects are equally astounding. In my opinion, McQueen’s work behind the camera has never been this seamless. The division and pacing of “12 Years a Slave” is remarkably complex and he works it flawlessly. There’s one scene where essentially what McQueen is filming is utter stillness, say for a few minor movements and the vividness he evokes is breathtaking. The colour scheme, panoramic shots, and detailed violence is so faithful and captivating, it practically leaps forth from the screen. I also want to mention the incredible score composed by the masterful Hans Zimmer who continues to churn out masterpieces. If there’s anything in the film that takes the harsh edge off, it’s Zimmer’s atmospheric, enthralling soundtrack.
Now, aside from the lead role of Solomon Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave” is very much the beneficiary of a superlative group effort. The film oozes with outstanding performances from its entire ensemble. Which, in addition to Ejiofor features Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Taram Killam, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, and Lupita Nyong’o. And luckily for those who can’t stomach the violence, inhumanity, or the film’s content as a whole. The performances throughout “12 Years a Slave” are alone worth the price of admission.
Without any doubt, Chiwetel Ejiofor shines brightest. He completely astounds with an enthralling, mesmerizing, heartbreaking performance full of emotion and a thirst for life. I would be completely flabbergasted if Ejiofor does not at least earn an Oscar Nomination for best actor with his performance here. That being said, he certainly isn’t the only actor in “12 Years a Slave” who appears to have punched their ticket to the Academy Awards. I feel that Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o are sure-shots to be nominated in the supporting actor categories. Both are just amazing, pure scene-stealers. Benedict Cumeberbatch, although remarkable when on screen, is a long-shot to earn a nomination for “12 Years a Slave,” especially considering all the other incredible performances his given so far this year. Finally, the other members of this immaculate supporting cast, Pitt, Paulson, McNairy. Killam, Dano, and Giamatti deserve a great amount of recognition.
When a film has Oscar written all over it, much like Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” does, it’s usually for good reason. Trust me, this is one of the best of the year and is a must see, cinephile or not.
12 Years a Slave: 9.5 out of 10.