To say the 12 Years a Slave, adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same name, is a triumph of epic proportions is an insult to the film. The film is difficult viewing, to say the least, but I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The film follows a free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a husband and father of two living in Saratoga Springs, New York, who is a violin player and carpenter. Lured into a business deal by two men in 1841, he plays violin for their touring show before reaching Washington, D.C., where the slave trade was legal until 1850. He is kidnapped and shipped to New Orleans, where he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively kind slave owner. The rest of the film follows his life during his twelve years in often cruel and unpaid servitude, some of which he also spends under the ownership of Edwin and Mary Epps (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson).
The screenplay, by John Ridley, previously known for the screenplays to Three Kings and Undercover Brother, is an astonishing achievement. Much of the film is episodic, and yet it flows with startling clarity and depth. It leaves not one character one-dimensional, instead showing that everyone, even the most horrible of slave traders, kidnappers, or owners, is not just pure evil. While the first quarter of the film may seem slow, the rest of the film would have fallen flat on its face without the expert craftsmanship Ridley exhibits.
This screenplay, however, is moot without the truly inspired work of Steve McQueen, director of 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame, who cements his status as perhaps the premier director in cinema today.
Many of the performances are masterworks, and yet a few of them are what ultimately keep the film from being perfect. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an always underappreciated, underutilized, and very talented actor, is terrific. His Solomon Northup is a man fighting for his freedom after having it taken away. Ejiofor easily could have been self-righteous, especially in the scenes in which he consoles fellow slave Patsey, portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan actress making her American film debut, in an astonishing performance, but instead he only ever displays the truest of emotions. He is by no means a perfect, but instead a man who cares deeply for his family and his freedom, so much so that he will do just about anything to get them back. Opposite Ejiofor as Edwin Epps is Michael Fassenbender. His performance is simply superb. He gives life to a man that cares so much about financial success and personal lust that he is willing to throw his family by the wayside. His and Ejiofor’s scene with the pig-pen is great, but the scene that shall evermore be known simply as “the scene,” is simply incredibly, and provides the best scene for both Fassbender and Nyong’o. Much of the depth instilled in his character, however, would not have been possible without the strong, assured performance of Sarah Paulson as his wife. Her performance as the wronged wife, while much too short, is great. The wrath she unleashes on her husband and his slave mistress to punish them is both deathly frightening and strangely sympathetic. In addition, Alfre Woodard gives a wonderful single-scene, scene-stealing performance as a former-slave-turned-wife-of-her-former-master. Brad Pitt is also surprisingly good, giving an un-self-righteous performance, a feat given the nature of his role.
But just because the film is aglow with the brilliant lights of these actors does not mean there aren’t some duds. Benedict Cumberbatch is fine, but his Southern accent is an absolute disgrace. Also, some of the acting of the single-scene parts is unfortunately one-dimensional, despite how easily they could have been instilled with more depth given Ridley’s screenplay. Paul Dano's performance is especially disappointing, which is unsurprising given it is Paul Dano.
Technically speaking, the film is a masterpiece. The cinematography is probably, as much as I hate to say it, even better than Gravity’s. Sean Bobbitt is simply masterful. Going hand-in-hand with the cinematography is Joe Walker’s great film editing, which depicts the passage of time to interesting effect and makes an over-two-hour-long movie seem to be three-quarters that long. Patricia Norris’s costume design and the production design Adam Stockhausen, David Stein, and Alice Baker are great, with the detail of Norris’s work being especially impressive to me. Now while I do not dislike him, I am no fan of Hans Zimmer, as I find his work to be far too general and derivative of himself. There are exceptions, including Driving Miss Daisy and Inception, but this film is entirely different. He creates one of the most fascinating film soundtracks I’ve heard recently. He seems to combine completely disparate musical styles and creates a brilliant soundtrack that seems as though it were written jointly by Jonny Greenwood, Howard Shore, and Zimmer himself.
And now for some Oscar discussion. If the film does not receive nominations for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Ejiofor), Supporting Actor (Fassbender), and Supporting Actress (Nyong’o), then the eventual winner of the category may as well be stealing the award. At this point, however, each of these nominations seems all but assured. Additionally, nominations for Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, and Sound Mixing seem all but assured as well. I’m no expert on what makes the voters in the Makeup and Hairstyling department tick, but I would guess the film will make an appearance there too. Sound Editing, which is mostly about sound effects, seems perhaps the biggest leap. Additionally, despite their short roles, I would not be shocked if Sarah Paulson and/or Alfre Woodard made it onto the Supporting Actress ballot. Overall, I don’t think 12 nominations is a stretch at all. In fact, tying All About Eve and Titanic for a record 14 nominations or even surpassing them with 15 is not out of the question.
I could ramble on and on about the brilliance of this film, but I feel I've already rambled so much that many have already quit reading, so I guess I'll wrap it up.
Overall, this is a film of astonishing quality and is completely heartwrenching, especially in the film’s final scene. It never shoves emotion in your face; it never resorts to cheap sentimentality. Every tear, every yell is as true as if it were happening right in front of you. It’s probably the hardest-to-watch film I’ve ever seen, but it’s also a film that I would never give up having seen.
It’s a film about a horrible practice that will always mar America’s past. But even more so, it’s a film about the immensely powerful and effecting journey of a man who early on says, “I do not want to survive. I want to live.”