It’s not often that I walk out of a film emotionally destroyed, absolutely broken down, and in a numb, heavy daze, but when I do, I can easily acknowledge that something special just happened. I’m not saying I’d ever want to experience the same feelings again, and I’m not going to outright say 12 Years A Slave will reign supreme come awards season, but I will say that Steve McQueen’s volatile powderkeg challenged me in ways a slavery themed film never has, daringly diving into material not meant to be swallowed easily and producing a product that’s rightfully challenging.
McQueen will undoubtedly test your moral patience, push your visual limitations, and transport viewers to a time better left in the past – but he has to do so. Watering down material and skimping on atrocities would have lost the emotional wallop that 12 Years A Slave packs, and for that, you have to recognize the spectacular cinematic journey that McQueen orchestrates – even if you might not want to.
12 Years A Slave is a true story based on a novel written by the real Solomon Northup, who is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in our film adaptation. Northup, a free man living in upstate New York, falls victim to a sinister scheme and is sold into slavery while his family is away. Waking up in shackles, Northup is transported farther and farther South until ending up in the hands of plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man known for breaking slaves. As Solomon continually fights for his freedom while simultaneously carrying out his duties as a slave so no attention is drawn his way, he struggles with outbursts from Epps, being forced to commit despicable acts in his name. Will Solomon ever be reunited with his family? Or will his new life drive him to an untimely end?
As anyone with a working conscious will experience, I never felt “good” about watching 12 Years A Slave. Solomon Northup’s unjust adventure is full of brutal slave beatings, inhumane treatment, degradation, racism, graphic violence, hangings, and heartfelt songs of sorrow. Believe me, Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from wearing down his audiences. Lashing after lashing, wound after wound, we ask ourselves if McQueen has choreographed his last example of the extreme horrors slaves had to face at the hands of these abusive plantation owners, but before we can calm out minds, another whip is drawn, cracking down like thunder on a defenseless slave’s back as a red mist sprays with each snap.
Not only considering frequency, and thinking of one particularly agonizing scene, McQueen focuses the camera on hanging man for what seems like hours, keeping the camera on his body as other slaves start going about their day. There’s no music, as all we hear are his gasps for air and the creaking of the rope, along with background noises that sink our hearts. As a horror fan, this is some of the scariest cinema I’ve seen all year, as characters disregard humanity and embrace inequality, ruling with a tyrannical mindset that affirms their notions of playing God.
Yet, McQueen does establish a moral comparison between different plantation owners, offering a more sympathetic owner in William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). One can argue these owners are nothing more than victims of circumstance, as slavery was a legally backed practice, but it’s incredibly hard to agree with that notion after comparing Fassbender and Cumberbatch’s characters.
Epps, who most will peg as a hateful monster, basks in the glory of owning human lives, treating slaves as nothing but property with which he can do anything he pleases. Ford, on the other hand, listens to Solomon and respects his workers, showing a distinct side of compassion other slave owners ignored. Ford treated Solomon as a person, rewarding him for ingenuity and good behavior, while Epps worked his slaves to the bone, offering no relief or acknowledgement of basic human rights. Epps toyed with the slaves and hid behind scripture sayings while beating female workers within an inch or their lives. For a man like Ford, you can argue he’s just a victim of circumstance, not letting slave ownership influence his personal code, but Epps is a far different story. Epps is the slave owner movies exploit as maniacs, being somewhat of a real life Calvin Candy, showing the nasty, dark, unsettling type of owner who turned slavery from a social injustice to an all out horrific atrocity.
But for as harrowing, bleak, unapologetic, and honest 12 Years A Slave presents itself, McQueen’s film cannot be ignored critically. Achievements aren’t only recognizable considering the mechanical parts that put this grueling locomotive together, but the actors driving this crazy machine also turn in performances full of gravitas and soulful immersion, as if a time machine brought back real plantation owners and slaves.
Lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor should see his name being mentioned when Best Actor nominees are announced, playing a freed black man who is ripped away from his family, thrown into slavery, and then forced to endure hardship after hardship, having already tasted freedom and established himself as an upstanding citizen. Looking into Ejiofor’s eyes, as the wrongly imprisoned Solomon Northup, pain and despair existed in every submissive glare, whether he was showcasing his musical talents at Epps’ command, or picking cotton in the fields. Ejiofor becomes a slave with so much more depth, dealing with family dramas and inner strife as well, creating a wonderfully complex character who projects his tumultuous struggle onto the audience.
Michael Fassbender’s turn as Edwin Epps should also garner some serious attention for Best Supporting Actor, as we’re left with jaws gaping by most of Epps’ outbursts. Epps is a monster. A brainwashed, vindictive, merciless monster who revels at the chance to put down lifeforms that aren’t “equal.” He’s the stereotypical Southerner who truly believes African Americans exists somewhere under Caucasians in the proverbial pecking order, and Fassbender plays the part with a beautifully frantic insanity that’s both disgusting and admirable.
The funny part is, Fassbender himself revealed that he doesn’t think his character is “evil,” but just a “human being who’s caught up in something so complicated and so unjust.” I’ve already addressed my true thoughts on the issue, but Fassbender’s comments bring his character into a whole new light, and make his powerful performance that much more groundbreaking. Evil or not, Michael Fassbender completely transforms into plantation tyrant Edwin Epps, creating a character we fear – but one we want to analyze on a much deeper level.
All this talk and I haven’t even mentioned Lupita Nyong’o, who gives us an equally heartbreaking performance as a female slave on Epps’ plantation. Her situation is tragic, revolting, and soul-crushing in every sense of the word, as Lupita bravely plays an abused female character that had to be shown. Like I’ve said over and over again, Steve McQueen didn’t hold anything back, and while watching Nyong’o’s character will bring you to your knees, Lupita’s deserves all the credit for warranting that sympathy.
12 Years A Slave is first and foremost a film, but ultimately, it’s a conversation starter. Steve McQueen has created a deeply moving period piece that unearths feelings buried for years and years, telling not only one unfathomably gut-wrenching tale, but offering a dissection of slavery and what it took to survive. From plantation owners to slaves, both demographics are shown in the wide array of varieties they existed, blurring the line between hero and villain.
12 Years A Slave is a study, not a clear picture, centered around a focal story – and a breathtaking one at that. Enjoyment is undefinable, but brilliance cannot be denied – just remember that while you’re watching Steve McQueen’s film and you’ll understand exactly why I was left speechless.
12 Years A Slave will beat you down emotionally, scene after scene, without any mercy - but that's just a testament to the brilliant direction, transformation-like performances, and unapologetic storytelling that elevates Steve McQueen's movie high above the masses.