12 Years A Slave (2013)
Mankind has come a long way from just being another mammal to the self-proclaimed masters of the planet. We have evolved well, invented fire & many great things, discovered places, explored oceans, studied the existence of our universe & what not. But the one thing that has continued to accompany us throughout the course of our evolution has been our will to dominate over others & our unquenchable thirst for more power. We’ve fought for lands, race, religion etc but the real motive behind all of it has been to assert our dominance on other human beings, to exploit them for our own purposes, to enslave those whom we deem unworthy. Slavery has existed since the dawn of man & continues to exist even today in all forms; be it forced labour, human trafficking or debt bondage, & in one form or another, will continue to do so for a foreseeable future.
Dealing with America’s horrible past with slavery, 12 Years A Slave is a historical drama based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name & tells the story of Solomon Northup; a free-born negro & skilled violinist living with his family in New York who, on the pretext of making more money, was brought to Washington D.C. in 1841 and was later deceived, kidnapped & sold into slavery. The film is an extraordinary true story of an ordinary man who was forced to work as a slave at different plantations, suffered countless punishments & abuses from his masters but who, against all odds, refused to fall into despair, kept himself hearty & managed to survive through 12 years of brutality until freedom was opportune. While narrating Solomon’s plight from his bondage to his eventual release over a decade later, this film also paints a viciously devastating portrait of American slavery & isn’t going to be an easy sit for everyone.
Steve McQueen is one of the most promising directors of the present era & what’s so great about him is that he is dead serious & committed to the story he wants to portray and isn’t one of those filmmakers who will try to compromise or sugar-coat something just to make audience more comfortable. His first two films, Hunger & Shame, already garnered him a lot of acclaim & respect from critics & viewers around the world but this third film is the one where this British director makes an imminent breakthrough into the ranks of Hollywood’s finest filmmakers working in the industry today. 12 Years A Slave is no doubt an astonishing work of cinematic art but unlike his previous two films, it is also McQueen’s most accessible film so far & carries a much wider emotional appeal than any of his previous works. The screenplay by John Ridley also deserves a mention as the story keeps its emphasis on Solomon Northup only rather than allowing itself to get distracted by the violence that abounds this subject matter.
Coming to the technical aspects, the film makes fine use of all McQueen’s trademarks with its long takes shots, stare gazes, controlled movements or unadulterated violence. The production design does a brilliant job in wonderfully re-creating the 1840s atmosphere of the United States & the locations for plantation sequences were also smartly chosen. Cinematography presents a great level of steadiness in capturing the film’s moments or characters’ emotions & with its widescreen aspect, gives the story an epic feel of a periodic time. Running at 134 minutes, editing properly introduces its characters & devotes enough screen time to each one of them while progressing the entire story in a very balanced manner. Costumes are also very well-defined by the timeline it represents and last but not the least, the score by Hans Zimmer is very different when compared to his usual works, which generally involves heavy use of electronic instruments, but is nevertheless effective where it means to be.
Coming to the performances, 12 Years A Slave features a gifted cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano & Brad Pitt and each one of them have contributed greatly in delivering the year’s strongest ensemble performance. Leading from the front is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in what is certainly a career-defining work that deserves all the praise it has garnered so far & more. Ejiofor is very convincing as Solomon & flawlessly presents a wide range of stuffed-up emotions to connect with the viewers from the film’s opening moments. Steve McQueen’s regular i.e. Michael Fassbender this time stars as Edwin Epps; the sadistic owner of a cotton plantation where Northup is held & who justifies slavery as biblically sanctioned. Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey; a young female slave at the plantation who picks up 500 pounds of cotton everyday but is repeatedly sexually abused by Epps, and both Nyong’o & Fassbender have given powerful supporting performances.
Others actors are in for cameos only starting with Benedict Cumberbatch who plays William Ford; Solomon’s previous owner who comparatively was very kindhearted to his slaves, Paul Dano as John Tibeats; a racist carpenter who resents Solomon & verbally harasses him leading to the circumstances where Ford is left with no choice but to sell Solomon to Epps in order to save his life. Sarah Paulson is in as Mary Epps; Edwin’s wife who is envious of Patsy & violently tortures her. And also making an appearance in the film is Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass; a Canadian labourer who is against slavery or treating human beings as properties & in whom, Solomon confides his true identity. From the leading actor to the supporting cast, this film is full of compelling performances that elevates the artistry, which it already had from McQueen’s direction, to a whole new level and for the major part of the film, the cast has done a wonderful job from accurately capturing the right accents to evoking genuine emotions on camera to make this absorbing drama an intensely moving experience.
There are always some films out there which deserve to be seen no matter how disturbing or upsetting their experience could be. 12 Years A Slave is definitely one of those films. It doesn’t come with a must-watch tag but you’ll be a better person for having done so. Slavery is the lowest form of how one human can exploit another & director Steve McQueen here leaves no stone unturned to prove that by viciously depicting the brutality one person can inflict on another. But in spite of its gruesome exhibition of graphic violence, this film never crosses that thin silver line to fall into the tasteless exploitation genre. Filmed with stunning artistic vision, this is arguably McQueen’s boldest work so far that might & should bag him something that no black director has won so far; An Academy Award for Best Director. On an overall scale, 12 Years A Slave is an emotionally scarring cinema about one of the most barbaric events in mankind history and benefits greatly from McQueen’s bold direction, unflinching script, historical accuracy & strong performances from its highly talented cast. Destined to tonk many bells during the upcoming award season, 12 Years A Slave is one of the best films of the year, if not the best, & is inarguably the strongest contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar and, in my opinion, the most deserving as well. Strongly recommended.