“12 Years a Slave” is a Landmark Achievement

By Alex Frail

Courtesy of foxsearchlight.com

“12 Years a Slave” is a loaded title. It tells you the movie’s endgame will follow a grueling roadmap of a dozen years of hardship. The movie’s brilliance is that it can overtly reveal its conclusion and can hint at the severe cruelty of its villains while refusing to let you look away. It is a masterwork of cinema.

The film, based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, recounts Solomon’s abduction and unlawful sale into slavery in Louisiana. One morning he wakes up with his family and the next he’s a slave. For the following 12 years, Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, struggles to survive under the brutal ownership of Edwin Epps, a notorious slave-breaker portrayed with relentless malevolence by Michael Fassbender.

Already known for the acclaimed films “Hunger” and “Shame,” director Steve McQueen has meticulously pieced together a film that should be studied for years. Other filmmakers must be scribbling down notes about how McQueen strung scenes of Solomon’s freedom and bondage together, or how he used innovative long takes with little to no dialogue, allowing character expressions to tell the story. He never force-feeds the audience and yet his point comes through loud and clear.

Rapid close-ups of Solomon’s fingers cranking his violin in tune cut to a scene of white Northerners dancing to his masterful playing – but he’s nowhere in sight. All we see of Solomon are his fingers and his instrument. He’s little more than a violinist for the entertainment of these northerners, who offer him fleeting applause. Even in the North, segregation holds Solomon back.

Ejiofor shines as Solomon, nailing every line of dialogue with the passion and fervor of a man fighting for his life. Throughout the film, Solomon’s hunched back would suggest that the man has been broken. But then his deep, rumbling voice bursts forth with the strength of a man far from surrender. Ejiofor’s Solomon is a role destined for an Oscar.

The actor, who starred as the villainous Luke in “Children of Men,” portrays his character as though he spoke with Northup himself about his experience. He fully inhabits the part. Ejiofor’s shoulders sag more and more throughout film, but his eyes flicker with such passion, boldly refusing to allow slavery to break him. Despair steams off his skin as he gazes into a pool of blackberry juice on his plate and his hatred is palpable when facing down Edwin Epps.

Fassbender should easily make the shortlist for awards season. He plays Epps as a coward and weak man, powerless to his drink and the word of God, which he uses to justify every whip and curse he lays upon his slaves. It’s hard not to flinch at the ferocious delivery of Fassbender’s lines. He often sprays across the screen like a rabid dog while screaming at his slaves. His scenes are a hellish experience. They test the audience’s capacity to witness utter inhumanity.

Lupita Nyong’o rounds out the brilliant main cast as Epps’s slave Patsey, for whom he feels both disturbed attraction and deep contempt. Among the most unsettling moments is when Epps gazes at Patsey with his perverted sense of longing. You can’t help but wince when Nyong’o, astounding in her American film debut, swallows her disgust at Epps’s abuse and struggles to accept it.

“12 Years a Slave” may feature masterful direction, acting and writing, but it is not easy to watch. McQueen refuses to look away during scenes of torture or lynching. In one scene, Solomon’s captor beats him with a paddle until it snaps in half. Once it breaks, he retrieves a whip. You think McQueen will cut away, you pray he’ll end the torture, but no relief ever comes. Determined to relive Solomon’s suffering, the film never recoils from its own brutality. Only the few scenes of humanity that poke through the darkness make the experience bearable.

A merciless piece of cinema, “12 Years a Slave” stands as a timeless history of the American experience. Adapted faithfully from the source material, the movie glimpses into one of America’s darkest chapters to exhume the violence and bondage that once ruled the “land of the free.” The movie’s detailed account feels as much a history as a textbook. McQueen’s eye for detail and compulsive realism reconstruct a time long gone, making for an entirely convincing portrait of antebellum Louisiana.

The scenes of torture will repulse some viewers, but this movie features a director and a slew of actors at the top of their game. No matter your take, it is impossible to deny the brilliance of “12 Years a Slave.” As long as you remember anything, you’ll never forget this film.

Alex Frail can be reached at [email protected]