Hollywood is often accused, and rightfully so, of glossing over harsh topics and sugar coating grey areas in history. But Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” refuses to take part in that practice. The film shows American slavery in all of its horrors and evils, and it makes for an unforgettable, albeit at times uncomfortable, film going experience.
Based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York in 1841. When Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery, he must find a way back to his family. Steve McQueen directs.
“12 Years” is no “Django Unchained” revenge fantasy tale. It is the gritty facts about the forced labor of an entire race of people, and the horrible conditions under which they suffered. There are several lashing scenes, one of which is painfully realistic and disturbing. But it hits you that human beings actually endured this; it isn’t some fictional punishment that only exists in the movies.
The acting in the movie is nothing short of excellent. Ejiofor keeps a calm presence most of the film, however when he feels he is being mistreated even by slave standards, he snaps and goes on rage-fueled rants about freedom and how he doesn’t want to just survive; he wants to live. It is a multi-layered performance that gives the film’s hero a special amount of humanity.
The film’s best performance, however, comes from Michael Fassbender, who plays a sadistic plantation owner. Fassbender portrays a man who is naturally wicked and more than just a product of his environment. He gets angry at the smallest things, such as Solomon having conversations without his permission, and whips his slaves if they pick less cotton than the prior day. It is a chilling performance that is sure to earn Fassbender award talk.
The film is not without its flaws, however. At times we feel like Solomon is merely a spectator to these horrific events, not living them, and that makes us less empathetic towards him. Also, the whole concept of the audience rooting for one hero to make it back to his family is a bit unfair, for lack of a better word. Yes, this is one movie and one story, but there were millions of people separated from their families in real life and most all of them never saw their loved ones again. So when the film tries to give off this sense of hope, it is a bit diluted since it is really the exception to the rule.
Problems with the story arc notwithstanding, “12 Years a Slave” is a gripping, horrifying and brutally honest piece of American cinema that shows the darkest part of our nation’s history. Few films have ever dared to be so loyal to their dark source material, and almost 200 years after it took place, it is great to see the story of one man’s triumph over the evils of slavery.
A moving score by Hans Zimmer and steady direction from Steve McQueen, not to mention the two powerhouse performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, make “12 Years a Slave” a necessary film that needs to be experienced by people of every age, young and old. It is a tale of perseverance, determination and triumph of the human spirit, and those traits are what make life, and the movies, so great.
Critics Rating: 8/10