Movies are made for several different reasons: entertainment, financial gain, a learning process for the filmmakers or actors, and then occasionally a movie is made simply because the story needs to be told, and needs to be seen. That is the case with Steve McQueen’s latest opus (and a film that has found itself on top of a short list of films vying for this year’s Best Picture Oscar), “12 Years a Slave” (2013).
Based on the 1853 novel, “Twelve Years a Slave,” written by the story’s main character, Solomon Northup, this harrowing tale centers on Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man living in New York in 1841. While in Washington on business, he is taken captive and sold into slavery, leaving behind his wife and two young children. Northup is transported to New Orleans, and sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Under the care of Ford and his ruthless overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup begins to learn how to survive in his new and unfamiliar surroundings.
After some time, Northup finds himself being sold once again, this time to a cotton plantation owned by a much more brutal and slave hating man, Edwin Epps (another remarkably despicable role for Michael Fassbender), and his wife (Sarah Paulson). This is where most of the film takes place, with Northup butting heads with Epps and his unruly behavior, while forming a friendship with another slave, Patsey, played by relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.
There are so many aspects of this film that its hard to know where to begin. In only his third feature film after “Hunger” (2008) and “Shame” (2011), director Steve McQueen has propelled himself to the head of the class of directors working today. What I find most interesting about his work on “12 Years a Slave” is the simplistic style that he uses to tell his story. McQueen doesn’t feel the need to overcomplicate things with too much dialogue or an unnecessary voice-over. He doesn’t use ten words if five will do, or stretch scenes beyond what is needed. He makes a painfully realistic account of events that most of the world has overlooked, without wasting any frames of film. Yes, at times there are moments that we don’t want to watch, but perhaps these are the moments we most need to see. Following in the same mold as his first two films, McQueen chooses to show us and involve us in one man’s life story. No matter how dark, disturbing, or upsetting, he is going to include every detail he deems necessary to convey the story as accurately as possible.
To assist him in making this film as amazing as possible, McQueen enlisted his editor, Joe Walker, and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, both of whom he collaborated with on each of his first two endeavors. Their chemistry and rapport together have made them a close-knit team that promises to continue making amazing and important films for many years to come. This time they have successfully made a film that is technically flawless and overwhelmingly intoxicating to watch. In addition, Hans Zimmer has written a score that seems subtle, with the use of just four notes, but as the film transpires, this simple melody’s power grows to new heights. It is a culmination of all these men’s work that turns “12 Years a Slave” into something special.
Beyond the filmmaking itself, “12 Years a Slave” benefits from one of the most outstanding casts you will find, with each actor bringing the best they have to offer. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the heart and soul of the film, rarely leaving the view of the camera. It is his story to tell, and his expressions, words, tears, and raw emotion deliver a performance that leaves nothing to be desired. Of course his performance has the benefit of having every scene filled with unparalleled supporting characters to enhance everything even further. Everyone is spectacular, from Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfre Woodard, all the way through to Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Brad Pitt. No part is too small or unimportant, and these actors display their integrity to get things right during every scene.
In addition to praise for Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender are also due some special recognition. Both give supporting performances that are sure to be remembered for years to come. Nyong’o easily brings the emotions of a seasoned acting veteran, even though it is only her first feature film. Her depth is unbelievable and the sadness in her eyes alone proves what a glorious addition she is to the acting community. Michael Fassbender burst onto the scene after his appearance in “300” (2007), and since that time has captivated audiences with his smoldering looks and intense performances. He is not afraid to make us hate his characters, and this time around, he is virtually guaranteed to gain himelf the acclaim he has deserved for years. Perhaps the reason he gives such a standout performance in “12 Years a Slave” is because it’s a supporting role that shows off his electric acting ability in smaller doses. It is certain to be a performance that won’t be forgotten by anyone that sees him.
Few films this year will be more impacting and hard-hitting on audiences than this one, and although it might be difficult to watch at times, it’s an immensely important film to be seen. This story of survival, determination, and hope, no matter the obstacles, is one that will leave everyone spellbound.