Slavery has been portrayed countless times through various eyes and races, portrayed in a positive and negative light throughout history. It is one of the hardest and ugliest subjects in world history to portray effectively on screen. But when done right it shows the ultimate horror of man and the ugliness that many believe to be long forgotten. '12 Years a Slave' presents that horror in so many ways that it’s all the more shocking that this mindset is still alive and well all around the world. It is not made to make one uncomfortable or be gratuitous with content, just brutally honest. The truth has always been uglier than anyone could ever make up and it comes out at full force. It comes at you just as sudden to the poor men, women and children forced to become slaves. The all too serious subject matter was handled perfectly and heavily anchored by a stellar cast headlined by the performances from Chitewel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. They help it become the most powerful and shocking movie of the year.
There were many great actors throughout the movie with good performances. It was a very well rounded film that kept the attention on the two stars, it felt like an ensemble picture with talented performers like Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt. But they were more like place holders for the entire movie. Which is to say that there performances were all for naught. It just wasn’t made to focus on certain characters. It was mainly the focus of Chitewel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a freeman turned slave and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, sadistic slave owner. Ejiofor goes through the emotional, physical and mental ringer while pushing your stomach and heart to its absolute limits. It’s hard to even describe the horrible things he’s had to do or has been done to him. One should go in cold and have the brutality hit you like a freight train.
Ejiofor gives one of the strongest, most heartbreaking performances I’ve seen in any movie period. What he goes through is akin to the five stages of death. He does everything he can to survive mentally and physically without succumbing all hope and later realizing will be a slave for the rest of his life. It’s heartbreaking to see one person’s soul crush under the harsh, cruel unforgiving reality. Here Ejiofor shows his range across all borders exuding all possible emotions one would have. It’s a little hard to get a handle on his performance since it’s so varied over a long course of time. He goes through segments of the movie that change his perception and it’s a little hard to compute it as you watch. One would definitely benefit from watching it again to see the many varied layers from the characters. It would be rather easy to miss a few things in such a heavy and epic movie like this. It’s not really built up as a one off viewing experience even if the subject matter is hard to watch. Like a fine meal or wine, the material needs time to settle than you can go back to it with renewed interest. Perceptions on character would undoubtedly change and make the experience that much more fulfilling, allowing the material to gravitate more emotionally.
Fassbender as the sick and twisted slave owner Epps is equally great if not more. Watching him beat, berate humiliate and do many other horrible things to Solomon and other slaves is mesmerizing and terrifying. It’s the type of performance that can often take over a movie, but as the antagonist it is shared very well against his protagonist in Ejiofor. He is an uncaged animal ready to snarl and pounce at the slightest bit of movement or none at all. It’s very easy to get lost in his character and performance which is weird since he is not the least bit likable with any redeemable qualities. But that is usually the mark of an amazing actor. This is a brilliantly, shocking performance by Fassbender who has shown his skills as a charming likable man in 'Inglorious Basterds', 'Shame' and 'X-Men: First Class'. I always love when actors do a complete 180 from characters they’ve previously done. This is a role that requires the most talented and brave performer. I could hardly see anyone else who would fit this role as well as Michael Fassbender. It’s a performance that begs for nominations and awards statues. His evil wickedness is shared with the rest of the cast like Paul Giamatti as Freeman, the slave trader acting like a used car salesmen, Paul Dano as Tibeats, the slave handler to plantation owner Ford played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
But it is Sarah Paulson as the mistress to Edwin Epps that shines just as bright as Michael Fassbender. She proves at times to be even more twisted than he and is more shocking to see her unleash her racist fury. Her shockingly unpredictable performance comes out of nowhere as you see her brutally attack a slave for no real reason at all. You go in knowing these people are messed up, but seeing her act this way just leaves your mouth aghast. At times she had more power than her husband, revealing how contentious the relationship is. Brad Pitt as Bass, the carpenter was good but nothing too notable. I felt that the role could have been recast with someone less famous. The many roles of the slaves were extremely varied and fleshed out the story very well. With so many faces you get a more complete picture to the savagery they endure. One performance in particular that was rather exceptional was Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, the slave that Epps pined for. She shined in a supporting role but made it a leading part of the movie.
Steve McQueen has grown into one of the brightest new directors seemingly out of nowhere. Only on his third film, he strikes to make an impact and tackle hard, uncomfortable subject matter. His previous film Shame handled a regular man struggling with sex addiction which also starred Michael Fassbender. His first film Hunger was about the 1981 Irish Hunger strike that once again starred Michael Fassbender. His brutal honesty and shocking portrayals with human characters is very prevalent there as it was here. He takes you in the sweaty, southern scenery while focusing on long shots and refusing to take you out of it. He has a very arresting style that is often hard to watch but will none the less keep you watching. It’s hard to not be moved as we see Ejiofor in the worst possible situation. McQueen expertly directs realistic horrors better than most already with such a small resume.
This may seem like Oscar bait, a liberal agenda or banking on a black president but it is much more than that. There shouldn’t be an agenda every time there’s a movie with a topical controversial issue as the center piece. It’s only that it still persists that these movies are being made. This is to prove that in some forms we haven’t changed as much as people. It will garner attention and awards while making some people squeamish because it’s a brilliant movie and not because people can’t get over slavery or crap like that. It presents a different side of the coin on the topic of slavery to Tarantino's bloody revenge epic 'Django Unchained'. That was gratuitous and offensive which I absolutely loved. But what makes this special is that it’s a true story right from the mouth of the man who went through it all. That just makes it that much more unbelievable and shocking. It’s hard to not make comparisons to 'Schindler’s List' and it’s also hard to not put it at that very same level of heartbreaking brilliance.
The story was great and had a natural progression, showing you the ins and outs of slavery. No rock is left unturned as all the ugliness is revealed. It feels as complete as you would think and you wonder what else they could have included. When watching a movie like this, you want and need to see all the disgusting brutality that comes with a subject matter like this. To not reveal it does a disservice to the audience, the creators, and the people who went through with it. It really affects you like no other movie can. It’s hard to choose a specific moment or scene that moved or changed you the most since the entire movie must be encapsulated as one big moment. With no mention to the passage of time, I found it hard to remember certain moments in relation to when they happen in the movie. But it makes it that much more harrowing when you’re watching Solomon be a slave for over two hours when in reality its twelve years. By the end you can’t believe it’s been that long. That microcosm of his life against the real life duration gives it added weight, giving the horrors witnessed more impact. The most uncomfortable scenes in the movie in a sea of many were the beating scenes. The detail given to the sound and impact of the beatings were so realistic, you can’t help but shudder and wince with every strike given. It was often hard to look at as I grinded my teeth, but even more so to the after effects of the beatings and seeing the scarred, bloodied body. One scene in particular was so graphic and horrible you could see the blood sprout from the back of a slave being whipped. Seeing people getting tortured realistically on film is nothing new but can be overdone at times. 'Passion of the Christ' for example is overtly gratuitous and an overblown, stomach inducing torture film.
Afterwards watching this, I got a sinking feeling of despair after realizing that slavery is still very much prevalent all around the world. Knowing that men, women and children are being forced against their will to be sex, work, and soldiers of slavery is beyond disgusting. And further shows that the more people change, the more they will stay the same. It has been around for thousands of years enslaving all likes of people with no clear signs of stopping. Too bad our efforts are more involved with wars than freeing innocents from a life of hell. In this world it is far easier to send someone into a life of hell than freeing them from it.
To be blunt, '12 Years a Slave' is required viewing in the highest order. It is not often you see a movie that is so brutal, shocking and true. It presents one of the most deplorable and awful periods in human history with honesty, engaging characters and a stark in your face style. One should not ignore the ugliness in history, white washing it as something less but facing it head on so that future generations can see the terrible lengths people once did and the ignorance they showed. But also realizing that slavery is in no way, shape or form abolished in this country or the world overall. One should really reconsider seeing this if they don’t have the stomach for it. It is far too important to ignore. Once racism is no longer an issue, movies like this will be all but a blip when everyone was a lot less tolerant. This is an important film where simple words do no justice. It must be seen to be believed and felt to be experienced. Five abolitionists out of five.