‘12 Years a Slave’ captures hardship of slavery, plantations

LUKE BONIELLO
STAFF WRITER

The Hollywood hype-machine has the potential to make or break a fall release. “12 Years a Slave,” in theaters now, has been awash in nothing but glowing reviews. A prizewinner at the Toronto Film Festival, “12 Years” has already been named the Academy Award Best Picture frontrunner. This amount of buzz creates enormous audience expectations, but British director Steve McQueen’s engrossing and brutal depiction of American slavery proves that it is one of the year’s best films.
Based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave” is the true story of one man’s bondage and his desire to not just survive, but “to live.” Northup, a free Northerner, is a successful violinist who lives in upstate New York with his wife and two children. After being deceived by two slave catchers masquerading as entertainment scouts, Northup finds himself on a riverboat heading to the Deep South. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Northup is sold to Ford, a somewhat humane plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. When Ford is forced to sell Northup to the infamous slave breaker Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the story takes a turn for the worse. The remainder of the film follows Northup as he experiences the horrors of the chattel system. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup to perfection. Virtually unknown in the United States, Ejiofor has made himself a household name with his fiercely controlled and devastatingly honest performance. An actor’s eyes have never conveyed such humanity and emotion.
Ejiofor’s masterful performance is complemented by equally stunning performances from Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Fassbender gives a ferocious performance as the sadistic and borderline psychopathic Epps. His wife, played by the excellent Sarah Paulson, is just as evil and loathsome. Newcomer Nyong’o brings grace and heartbreak to Patsey, a slave girl who is constantly raped by the Fassbender character. Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt all provide effective supporting performances.
Steve McQueen is a risk taker. A well-known visual artist in the U.K., McQueen established himself as a promising filmmaker with his previous films. “Hunger,” his 2008 debut, depicts a hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison. In 2011 McQueen tackled sex addiction in 2011 with “Shame.” “12 Years” is McQueen’s best and most challenging work and no doubt places him at the vanguard of young filmmakers.
“12 Years a Slave” is an instant classic. There has yet to be a film that so unflinchingly and unapologetically depicts the horrors of the plantation system; however, audiences should be aware that the brutal portrayal of slavery is disturbing and at times sickening. Not only is “12 Years a Slave” one of the year’s best films, it is an essential work about the American slave experience.

Contact the writer:
luke.boniello@scranton.edu

One Response to ‘12 Years a Slave’ captures hardship of slavery, plantations

  1. Susu Reply

    March 10, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    One of the things that have been thrown around for months now is the notion that awards season voting bodies won’t respond to it because it’s too “difficult” to sit through. Let’s define difficult, shall we? Is it difficult to see the first openly gay politician gunned down by his closeted colleague? Is it difficult to see a reformed convict put to death by our country for his crimes? Is it difficult to see a mother choose which one of her children dies during the Holocaust? I’d argue that these answers add up to a resounding yes. Yet, no one threw those phrases of “too difficult” around.

    I’ve watched hundreds of films throughout my short 29-year history and I’ve seen some difficult cinema. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” can make anyone quiver in shame as it shows the despicable reality of the Holocaust. Paul Greengrass’ “United 93”, which is almost an emotional biopic of America’s darkest hour, makes me want to crawl up into a ball and cry. And finally, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, one of the highest grossing films of all-time, shows the labor of our sins fleshed out into the beaten skin of an honest man. And still, no one threw these hyperbolic terms out saying, “it’s too hard watch.” Is it because this is an American tragedy, done by Americans? Is it the guilt of someone’s ancestors manifesting it in your tear ducts? I can’t answer that. Only the person who says it can. The structure of this country is built on the backs and blood of slaves. But slavery didn’t just exist in America, it was everywhere. It was horrifying what occurred for over 200 years and believe it or not, still exists in some parts of the world TODAY.

    Now when approaching the powerful film by McQueen and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, there is a resounding honesty that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley inhabit. There are no tricks or gimmicks, no cheap takes on a side story or character that is put there for time filling or a life-lesson for Solomon to learn. Everything is genuine. Is the film heartbreaking? Oh my God yes. Did I cry for several minutes after the screening? Embarrassingly so. I was enamored the entire time, head to toe, moment to moment.

    I have long admired the talent that’s been evident in the works of Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ve known he was capable of what he has accomplished as Solomon Northup and he hits it out of the park. He has the urgency, worry, and drive to get home to his family and executes every emotion flawlessly even when all hope seems to be lost. Where he shines incredibly are the small nuances that he takes as the story slows down, you notice aspects of Solomon that make him even more believable.

    As Edwin Epps, Solomon’s last owner, Michael Fassbender digs down deep into some evil territory. Acts as the “Amon Goeth” of our tale, he is exactly what you’d expect a person who believes this should be a way of life to behave. He’s vile and strikes fear into not only the people he interacts with but with the viewers who watch. As Mrs. Epps, Sarah Paulson is just as wretched. Abusive, conniving, entitled, and I loved every second of her.

    Mark my words; Lupita Nyong’o is the emotional epicenter of the entire film. The heartache, tears, and anger that will grow inside during the feature will have our beautiful “Patsey” at the core. She is the great find of our film year and will surely go on to more dynamic and passionate projects in the future. You’re watching the birth of a star.

    Hans Zimmer puts forth a very pronounced score, enriched with all the subtle ticks that strike the chords of tone. One thing that cannot be denied is the exquisite camera work of Sean Bobbit. Weaving through the parts of boat and then through the grassroots of a cotton field, he puts himself in the leagues of Roger Deakins and Seamus McGarvey as one of the most innovative and exciting DP’s in the business. Especially following his work in “The Place Beyond the Pines” earlier this year. Simply marvelous.

    Oscar chances, since I know many of you are wondering. Put the Oscar’s in my hands, you have a dozen nominations reap for the taking. Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, dual Supporting Actresses, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score. There’s also a strong and rich sound scope that is present. The sounds of nature as the slaves walk or as Solomon approaches his master’s house is noticed. The big question is, can it win? I haven’t seen everything yet so I cannot yet if it deserves it or not. I can say, if critics and audiences can get off this “difficult” watch nonsense and accept the cinematic endeavor as a look into our own history as told from a great auteur, there’s no reason it can’t top the night. I’m very aware that seeing this film along with Steve McQueen crowned by Oscar is nearly erasing 85 years of history in the Academy. Are they willing and ready to begin looking into new realms and allowing someone not necessarily in their inner circles to make a bold statement as McQueen and Ridley take in “12 Years a Slave?” I remain hopeful.

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