An actual account of the American slave trade is practically impossible to find. However, Solomon Northup, an educated free man who was sold into slavery did just that. Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) goes all out to present one of the best on screen representations of the American slave era and its gut wrenching effects on those who were victims of it. This film stars an all-star cast lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o.
Beginning with the relative normal life of a free black family in Saratoga, New York the Northups were seemingly treated like everyone else around them. The father, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is beloved by others and they view him with a level of respect and admiration. All of this happening while the southern portion of the nation is ripe with the use of slaves from Africa. There is something particularly jarring about seeing Solomon and his family so happy and normal at these times. It feels out of place from the known history most are taught. However, life in certain areas was as it was portrayed in Saratoga in 1841.
Solomon made his living by playing the violin, and was offered money to play at a circus by two men, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam. These men drugged Solomon and sold him into slavery. After drinking and eating with these men all night he awakens to shackles and endures beatings the very next day. The brutality and horror by which we see Solomon’s freedom be taken away is not only heartbreaking but incredibly frustrating. The notion that a human being could do this to another is unfathomable in today’s society, but it was so common place at the time. Solomon is shipped off to Georgia where he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). However, before he arrives at Ford's plantation we get moments of the slave trade itself. The selling of slaves like animals or equipment was harsh. Watching mothers being separated from the children was a hard hitting narrative that McQueen touches on quite often. This scene prepared the audience for the emotional brutality that was to follow.
Solomon was not kept at Ford’s plantation too long before being sold into the hands of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps was a brutal tyrant in a time of many tyrants. He stands out in the crowd of despicable people in the film. He is described as a “breaker of niggers” before we even meet him. A man of religiosity and yet the purveyor of such pain and suffering, Epps plays well to the purposeful compartmentalization of Christian values and known slaver. Like many slave owners Epps had an affinity for a particular female slave. That woman was is Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), and she is one of the most profound characters I have seen in film. Dancing the line between pure innocence and unimaginable internal despair, Patsey is everything that Epps loves and hates. He feels that he must possess her in every possible way; simple ownership is not enough. Her beautiful onyx skin plays as a further contrast to who Epps is and what he wants. Solomon befriends this woman and their interactions are fascinating. She is looking for the fastest ways out of her situation, while Solomon works to tell her that she must endure; both pay dearly for their opposing views. There are no easy answers or even definitive ones, but all the characters are set on their path. When Solomon is given his opportunity to make it out, he takes it and others do the same. The idea of survival is challenged quite often with Solomon even stating explicitly, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”
The acting performances in 12 Years A Slave, were the best I’ve seen this year. The cast featured an array of big names, rising stars, and relative unknowns all playing their parts in great harmony. Lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s Solomon Northup had purpose and a genuineness that isn’t often seen. The degradation of going from a free man to a slave was no simple task in showing, but Ejiofor did it was such vigor that at moments you lose him in the role. Michael Fassbender is one of the best working actors of today. He will certainly go down as one of the best that’s ever done it, and I honestly love the guy’s work. However, I hated his guts in this film; a true testament to his skill as an actor. He is deplorable, hypocritical, and down right vicious. With two leading actors putting some of the best performances of their careers I think they were ultimately overshadowed. Lupita Nyong'o delivered nothing shy of an Oscar award winning performance. She never let up for a second. Whenever she was on screen she stole the spotlight, even from Ejiofor and Fassbender. She is the gem of the film. From being exalted by Epps to the final outcome of their relationship she runs the gamut. Nyong’o was able to portray a woman who is the absolute product of her horrible circumstances. She plays the loved slave/doll and works to become more. She accepts her plight but not before making some understandable choices. I look forward to seeing Nyong’o in more stellar roles like Patsey.
In conclusion, director Steve McQueen was able to craft a film that respected and brought to life the true story of Solomon Northup. There will never be another detailed slave story quite like Solomon’s and there will never be a film with the level of impact, brutality, insanity, and reality quite like 12 Years A Slave.
[easyreview title= "Review of 12 Years A Slave" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]