12 Years a Slave

Directed By: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, and Adepero Oduye

In a review two months ago, I wrote about how filmmakers are taking us to school this year.  With films like Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and even 42, we've gotten a healthy dose of black history from Hollywood.  We've arrived at our final lesson this weekend with Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, and there is no more fitting a note on which to end.  After having been reacquainted with Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and racism 2.0, we're going back to the basics of slavery and the centuries of injustices thrust upon black people.  We're going on a journey to better understand what a life without freedom truly is.  With director Steve McQueen and his supremely talented cast, it's one hell of a journey.

Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York.  He has a loving wife named Anne (Kelsey Scott) and two children named Margaret and Alonzo (Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler).  In 1841, his wife and children go away for several weeks.  During this time, Solomon, a renowned fiddler around town, is invited by two white gentlemen to go perform with them at a circus in Washington DC.  Given the compensation offered, Solomon readily accepts the position and goes with the gentlemen to the nation’s capital.  While out at dinner one night, the gentlemen spike Solomon's drink and take him captive.  To his horror, Solomon awakens in chains and learns that his freedom, the most precious gift of life, has been taken away from him.

Soon, Solomon finds himself on sale thanks to slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti).  A Baptist preacher and slave owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) purchases Solomon and takes him to his plantation in the Deep South.  Though Solomon wants nothing more than to live a free man, he's going to have to settle for just surviving and not falling into despair for now.  At this plantation in Louisiana, Solomon quickly learns he has issues with Ford's employee John Tibeats (Paul Dano).  Their issues eventually boil over and mean that Solomon can no longer stay at the plantation.  Ford sells him to cruel slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man known for breaking slaves' spirits.  As Solomon endures the malice and vitriol of Epps and his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson), he patiently awaits his opportunity to regain his freedom and once again see his family.

It takes an extraordinary film to nearly bring me to tears, and 12 Years a Slave is one truly extraordinary film.  The film is marked by the same despondent yet brilliant blend of raw emotion that we experienced in the final act of McQueen's sex addiction drama Shame two years ago.  However, there is one key difference between Shame and 12 Years a Slave.  In Shame, McQueen punches us in the gut toward the end of the film with a potent climax.  In 12 Years, he opts to stab us at the beginning and proceeds to twist the knife throughout the movie.  The mix of emotions that set the tone of this film are the product of masterful direction from McQueen and towering performances from his cast as they immerse us in Solomon's nightmarish reality.

There's no doubt that 12 Years a Slave is a journey back in time for a black history lesson.  More importantly, it's a journey to a hell where the demons are hypocritical Christian slave owners.  Showing brutal whippings, nighttime rapes, and many other horrific atrocities, McQueen certainly gives us a visceral taste of life in the cotton fields and what it means for a human being to be the property of another.  As he takes us on a tour of hell on earth, McQueen frequently juxtaposes these slave owners’ faith with musical selections.  McQueen cuts to these hypocrites touting scripture to justify their vile way of life as slaves sing spirituals to survive. Most notably, he cuts to Benedict Cumberbatch's William Ford preaching and reading scriptures as his employee John Tibeats serenades us with his jaw-dropping rendition of "Run Nigger Run".  There's nothing that shows these hypocritical slave owners for what they truly are better than this type of comparison.

McQueen also brings out the best in his cast.  Though many talented performers grace the screen at different parts of the film, there's one driving force on camera.  That's Chiwetel Ejiofor.  A recognizable face from dozens of supporting roles over the years, Ejiofor steps up to the big leagues with his depiction of Solomon Northrup. As the star of the film, he gives us a fighter who will do whatever he must to survive.  Though his character must mask his intellect in a world where knowledge is the equivalent of a death sentence for a black man, he can never mask his emotions.  With this in mind, Ejiofor gives us a performance where looks can kill.  Ejiofor embodies emotions ranging from unabated fear and unending despair to uncontrollable fury and unspeakable joy.  As Northrup, Ejiofor puts on a powerhouse performance that echoes with emotion and depth long after the credits stop rolling.

The other lead actor who really knocks it out of the park is Michael Fassbender as the brutal Edwin Epps.  For his part, Fassbender brings this relentless intensity to the screen as the perpetually furious slave master.  He puts everything on the screen until he's red in the face.  You just never know what his character will do or say, but you know it will be unpleasant to say the least.  Giving us this truly detestable character, Fassbender shows us what a demon with a Bible really looks like.  Though he undoubtedly deserves a nod for best supporting actor for his menacing performance, Fassbender probably won't get it.  The Academy isn't too kind to those who get their hands dirty with the uglier side of American history.  Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson how they were rewarded for their outstanding performances in Django Unchained last year.

The supporting cast members treat us to an acting master class in which they all contribute to the breadth and depth of 12 Years a Slave in a variety of ways.  In her role as Eliza for instance, Adepero Oduye deftly captures the immense grief that must overtake a mother after having her children ripped from her arms and sold to slave owners.  For her part as Patsey, Lupita Nyong'o serves up a sliver of the horror that comes with being raped by her slave master on a nightly basis.  On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Paul Dano in his performance as the loathsome John Tibeats.  In terms of hateful characters, Dano's Tibeats is second only to Fassbender's Edwin Epps.  Finally, we have Sarah Paulson as Epps's envious, spiteful wife Mary who will do whatever she must to salvage her marriage.  Her malice, however, boils over at the most surprising moments.

There's never a moment in 12 Years a Slave during which you as a viewer won't be overtaken with emotion.  Steve McQueen and his cast completely immerse us in a tense, harsh world where grave injustices are the norm.  Before I conclude this review, I have to say that I had goosebumps every time I heard the graceful melody composed by Hans Zimmer that's repeated throughout the film.  At each stage of the movie, it perfectly captures the array of emotions that characterize this incredible cinematic experience.  I know that 12 Years a Slave is a difficult film to watch, but it's a movie that everyone needs to see.  Though I'm giving the movie a sober rating, I'll understand if you need a little liquid courage to get through this one.