“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” — Solomon
12 Years a Slave (2013) is a historical epic drama directed by Steve McQueen (Shame) and written by John Ridley. It tells the story of a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. The film is based on the memoir of the same name, by the film’s protagonist Solomon Northrup.
When I first heard the premise for this movie, I was incredibly excited to see this film. I was very curious to see what was sure to be an incredible film. Just don’t make the same mistake I made: do not see this film on a 2nd date. It’s just not a good idea.
12 Years a Slave centers on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist and free man in New York. He has a wife and two children, a nice house, and a respectable and happy life. He is approached by some members of a traveling circus who need a good musician. He accepts, since his wife and children are gone for a month. At a dinner of celebration, the men take advantage of Solomon’s trusting and unsuspecting nature and get him drunk. Once incapacitated, the men sell him into slavery. At that point, the film follows his journey to get back to his family and documents the many experiences he has along the way.
The film begins somewhere in the middle of his life in slavery, with a shot of a group of slaves getting instruction on how to cut sugar cane. They all have a blank expression, blank yet irritated, as the overseer communicates to them as if they can’t understand his instructions. There are a few more scenes explored — Solomon pleasing a slave woman in the night and Solomon attempting to write a letter with a shaved stick and blackberry juice — and then the film starts from the beginning in New York. It helps provide a stark contrast between his clean and comfortable life and the hardships faced in slavery. There have been many slavery films made, but I think McQueen made some poignant choices with showing suffering in this film. Many times, cruelty and malice are introduced or hinted it and then quickly hidden so as not to disturb the viewer too much. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen lingers on suffering to emphasize the pain. An example is when Solomon is almost hung. He’s saved, but only can Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cut him down. What follows is an incredibly uncomfortable and striking scene, where Solomon still tied with his hands behind his back and his neck in a noose only has his toes on the ground. He struggles to stay on his toes and all that can be heard is the wrenching sound of his stifled windpipe as he struggles to breath. What makes the scene even more uncomfortable is that other slaves in the background begin to leave their living quarters and run errands and do work while he’s struggling to survive. Even children begin to play and laugh, an awkward sound to mix with the sounds of his throat. The scene goes on for quite a while, driving into the viewers just how horrible this is.
The film as a whole is incredible with very strong performances, particularly by Michael Fassbender (as slave owner Edwin Epps) and Lupita Nyong’o (as Patsey). Fassbender portrays the brutal slave driver with such nuance and rage. He mixes together a sweet and gentle nature with over-the-top anger that creates an awkward blend of a human being. Epps is in love with Patsey, the slave, and Fassbender deftly expresses fury rooted in discomfort whenever he has to lash out and punish Patsey. His terrible wife (Sarah Paulson) drives her husband to hurt Patsey, for she understands that he loves Patsey more than he loves her. His performance is incredible and it’s a relief that he finally receives an Oscar nomination after his snub for Shame. Nyong’o gives an incredible performance as well. Patsey is the queen of the slaves at the Epps estate. She picks more cotton than any man by a startling margin. She gives off an air of strength and resilience, but when Mistress Epps gets involved, she’s humiliated and abused worse than any other slave in their homestead. Nyong’o truly shines when her character hits desperation. There’s a scene where Patsey asks Solomon to end her life so that she may find peace. Solomon doesn’t want to live with the weight on his soul to take the life of someone, but her reasons are all true. She’s truly desperate, begging for the peace she so severely needs, and Nyong’o performs sincerely. Fassbender and Nyong’o are the strongest performances in the film.
Ejiofor gives a strong performance as well, but I struggled to connect with him. His performance felt insincere, like he was trying too hard to find the character. As a free man turned slave, it’s understandable for Solomon (or Platt as he was called in slavery) to hold on to his identity and mannerisms that constitute who he is, but they felt too forced and too proper for this role. It continually disengaged me from what was occurring in the film. However, his performance at the end of the film is incredible. After twelve long years, he’s finally reunited with his family. He sees his children grown. He meets his daughter’s husband and child, who is named after him. He realizes that they never forgot him. He begins to weep, apologizing for his composure, and his family embraces him and weeps with him. It’s an incredibly moving end to the film.
This will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, even though I would choose something else. Its biggest weaknesses are Ejiofor’s performance and its score, but its strengths are far more. It’s not a common-told story about slavery, which makes for an enthralling and moving experience: about the injustices of slavery and the resilience that the memory of family can give someone.