Wednesday, 28 May 2014

12 Years a Slave

Films dealing with slavery are becoming quite abundant nowadays – we had last year’s Django Unchained and we also had Lincoln, both of which dealt with the topic of slavery and it’s steady decline. It’s no surprise then that at the forefront of awards seasons earlier this year happened to be a film depicting slavery – however, this time around, rather than showing an industry on the verge of extinction it shows slavery at a prime and how violent, unforgiving and disgraceful this time was.

12 Years a Slave is set in the early 1800’s when Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man living in New York. He meets two businessmen, who offer Solomon a job working as a musician on a two-week tour, but they drug him and Solomon wakes up in chains, about to be sold into slavery. Once being put into the care of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), tensions begin to rise between Solomon and farmhand John Tibeats (Paul Dano). Fearing for Solomon’s safety, Ford sends Solomon to another plantation owner, the ruthless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who forces the slaves to pick 200 pounds of cotton every day. Epps, however, is attracted to slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) much to the ire of his wife (Sarah Paulson). Solomon must learn to adapt to his new surroundings and not just survive, but live.

12 Years a Slave does not rely on fancy special effects or beautiful locations or anything like that. It relies solely on the strength of its acting. And with such a high-calibre acting ensemble, it can’t possibly go wrong. The leading performance of Ejiofor is truly remarkable and the prolonged shots on his face showing his every expression and thought running through his mind. Ejiofor is so convincing in these sequences that it’s easy to forget he’s an actor, and believe that we’re watching pain and suffering for real. On the other side of the spectrum we have Fassbender, whose turn as the malevolent Epps is nothing short of one of Hollywood’s most recent great cinematic villains. His preying on Patsy only adds to his creepy nature and some of the film’s most brutal and brilliantly acted scenes come from Fassbender. Forget Magneto, Edwin Epps is Fassbender’s greatest villain yet. And let’s not forget Nyong’o who deservedly won an Oscar for her role as the helpless Patsy, whose heartbreaking scenes are the film’s saddest moments. Her ‘intimate’ scenes with Fassbender provoke a nauseating feeling of disgust and the torture sequences are incredibly brutal. And all the while we watch Nyong‘o and her incredibly powerful reactions to what goes on around her. It’s compelling stuff and it’s the proverbial glue that sticks the film together.

Acting aside however, not much else goes on. It’s beautifully shot and directed sure, but the story is a little basic. Seeing as it was adapted from Solomon’s own diary, we would expect nothing less. There are no subplots, no secret twists and that’s actually what we expect from this. The simplicity, if anything, is juxtaposed by the language which obviously is a little dated now. The characters sound like they’re making matters more complicated than what they are but it’s a simple enough reason – the language is poetic and lyrical and gives the film a sliver of joviality, making us listen more carefully and helping us understand how language has evolved since those times. It’s a mixed bag in this department – it’s simple but told just cryptically enough to create its own beauty and sound easy on the ear.

Unlike other films like Django Unchained, Gone with the Wind and Lincoln, this is not a glorification of freedom from slavery, this isn’t a tale of a slave attempting to escape his bonds – this is a tale of humans and individuality and how everyone is free in their own way. Freedom is not a choice, it’s naturally instilled in all of us and McQueen knows this, just as the characters know this. What happens to Solomon is injustice in its greatest form and McQueen makes this the prominent fact throughout the film, but rather than portraying liberation and retribution on the slavers, McQueen paints a very different picture. He shows how to survive and endure rather than fight and injects the problems of slavery into modern times – aren’t we all free? And if not, should we battle it or let it consume us? The situation of Solomon is just an example of this type of crime and his answer was to remain hardy and let life go on. McQueen uses this film akin to an essay, a study of character not of history.

Overall, this film is a triumph. It uses its stars to great effect, particularly the performances of Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o who create such deep and meaningful characters and truly pass on the message of cruelty in slavery. The language is perfect sounding similar to a lyrical ballad than a diary and it keeps its plot simple enough to allow the message to pass through. And what a message. It’s a film about slavery that doesn’t depict slavery in a normal way. The characters simply wish to live and whatever consequences occur, then they deal with it. Slavery is a crime because we are all free people and this relates to our thoughts and opinions too, especially in today’s society where many argue that there is no more freedom now than there was at the turn of the century. McQueen uses this film as an allegory and it’s probably the finest allegory that any could give us through the medium of film. It’s a modern classic.

12 Years a Slave gets a 5/5.


James Smith

12 Years a Slave at CeX

Digg Technorati Delicious StumbleUpon Reddit BlinkList Furl Mixx Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo
ma.gnolia squidoo newsvine live netscape tailrank mister-wong blogmarks slashdot spurl