Sunday, December 1, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free New England man kidnapped and forced into slavery for 12 years while visiting Washington, D.C., the historical drama from director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley is an accounting of those experiences and the long road Northup takes to make it home to his wife and children. It's often not an easy film to watch but it is an example of exceptional filmmaking that mark it as one of the best films of 2013.

Any discussion of the film must begin with Chiwetel Ejiofor, a longtime favorite of mine. Ejiofor's terrific performance of a man caught-up in events and circumstances far beyond his control, struggling with loosing hope or ever seeing his family again while doing what he must to survive, is a brilliant piece of acting. Against the harshness of the events which surround his character, Ejiofor's humanity shines through as a witness to the sin of slavery. Without what he's able to bring to the role the stark honesty of McQueen's film would be difficult to endure.

And he's not alone as McQueen gets the best out of the movie's supporting cast as well. In a world of vicious slave owners and their toadies Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano are credible villains while Sarah Paulson (as Fassbender's wife) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the first man to purchase Northup) may be outwardly less hostile to Solomon and others but are no less dangerous in terms of their beliefs about what can, and should, be done to their property at their slightest whim.

Lupita Nyong'o's performance as a treasured slave who has caught the eye of her owner (which hasn't gone unnoticed by his wife) is also worth noting as her breaking point produces one of the film's most troubling scenes that Simon is forced not only to endure but speed along by publicly whipping her in front of the other slaves.

After opening by offering the audience a short taste of Northup's normal life, the film moves quickly into his abduction and being sold into the slave trade where he learns quickly (through a savage beating) not to argue with his "betters" who have marked him down as a runaway slave from Georgia named Platt. Adjusting to his new role, Northup struggles with his own sense of right and wrong and the brutal world he is thrust into against his will.

McQueen's film offers no easy answers for the circumstances Northup finds himself in. He chooses not to villify the South as a whole but simply show how the practice of slavery was destructive to everyone it touched in one way or another. Northup's obvious training and intelligence helps him survive but it also must be hidden as any outward sign that he's educated or was once a free man would quickly mark him for death as no slave owner would tolerate a slave that might be smarter than himself.

An unwavering and honest look at the experiences Northup chronicled, 12 Years a Slave is a harsh look at how easily everything is taken away from a free man through no fault of his own and the brutal conditions of the pre-Civil War South for anyone born with black skin. Yes there are serious and vicious events that occur to both Northup and other slaves in his presence, but McQueen's mastery of the story allows him to expertly demonstrate that the entirety of what is done in those 12 years, not just those handful of scenes, is a sin by those who performed actions not because they were simply evil but by naively living under a set of unwavering beliefs about racial superiority that make you wonder how anyone can celebrate the "glory" of the South during this time period.

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