12 Years a Slave Biopic

Must-See Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

October 18, 2013Ben MK

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A testament to the strength of the human spirit

History is fraught with unspeakable and monstrous acts of cruelty, but if you look closely, you may find extraordinary tales of courage and compassion as well. Director Steve McQueen's latest film is one of those extraordinary stories -- and is that rare type of movie that transcends the boundaries of cinema by speaking so deeply to the human condition that it cannot be ignored.

12 Years a Slave tells the harrowing tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man with a wife and two young children living in upstate New York in 1841, at the height of slavery in America. While his family is away one day, he encounters two men representing themselves as traveling entrepreneurs. They inform Solomon that they are seeking the services of a skilled musician and offer a handsome payment; and as an accomplished violinist himself, he agrees to provide his services. Once in their company, however, the men drug Solomon and he awakens imprisoned in shackles -- sold into slavery. Stripped of everything, including his identity, he is subjected to brutal and dehumanizing treatment and soon finds his will to live tested.

The crux of the movie is Ejiofor's performance, for much of the emotional weight of the film rests on his shoulders. He proves to be up to the task by delivering a masterfully nuanced portrayal, conveying the raw emotions of a man who has been taken out of the only world he knows. Although he is stricken by an instinctive desire to fight back, gradually Solomon's anger is all but subdued by the hopeless reality of his situation. But even as he watches others succumb to despair, he never loses the strength to endure, despite there being no foreseeable reprieve from his misery.

The rest of the film's powerhouse cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard. The entire supporting cast is uniformly excellent; however, most of the parts are fairly small, and the actors are in and out of the film relatively quickly and without much closure for their roles. Even Pitt's screen time is fleeting, although his character does play a pivotal part in resolving Solomon's story. But every film needs an antagonist, and in 12 Years a Slave that is most definitely Fassbender's Edwin Epps.

Fassbender gives a true standout performance among the film's supporting cast. He and McQueen clearly understand one another from a creative point of view -- no doubt a product of their collaboration on both of McQueen's previous films -- for he delivers a compelling performance that rivals Ejiofor's. The juxtaposition between Solomon and Edwin is poetic: whereas Ejiofor's performance is of a man resigned to maintaining control over his emotions, Fassbender's is of a man plagued by his demons who is increasingly spiraling out of control. There's always a rage seething below the surface and an instability to his demeanor that threatens the well-being of those around him. It's a visceral performance that command's the audience's full attention whenever Fassbender is on-screen.

But 12 Years a Slave is more than the sum of its parts. Throughout its runtime (which, frankly, is less than expected for a historical drama of this scope), McQueen spares no punches in showing the audience the brutality of the treatment endured by the victims of slavery. Some of it can be difficult to watch, but there's no sugar-coating the subject matter. Luckily, McQueen handles things with a deft touch so that none of the material overwhelms the viewer with its heaviness. Ultimately, the film isn't heavy-handed or emotionally manipulative -- it lets events stand for themselves. Consequently, audiences are left to focus the incredible true story of a man who endured intolerable circumstances yet never gave up hope or his will to survive.

The Bottom Line

It's no surprise that 12 Years a Slave is favored to take the top prize at this year's Oscars, and for good reason: It's a powerful and emotionally stirring film that covers some serious subject matter. But the film is more than a document of some of the darkest times in American history; it's a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Although it can be difficult to watch at times, it's ultimately an inspirational tale of survival -- and something that everyone should make a point of seeing. [★★★★½]

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