It is tough to be able to wrap-up the significance of this film into words and be able to convey it to you all in enough words that will make up for what the film means not only for this year, but for films depicting slavery going forward, but I will try because it is an important feat in movies.
12 Years a Slave is based off the book by the same name which was written by Soloman Northup. The film and book follows Northup, a free man from New York, who was tricked and sold into slavery. He would end up being in slavery for 12 years.
What hits you initially is the powerful directing by Steve McQueen. What may be the entrance to a more mainstream audience for McQueen, he continues to establish himself as one of the best working directors in Hollywood and 12 Years a Slave is no different. McQueen uses long takes and uncomfortable shots to make the images depicted on the film to be incredibly uncomfortable and hard to watch but that was his intention. None of the things depicted in the film should make you feel good, but that does not make them any less important and give you any less of a reason to view it.
I think that is what I loved most about this film. It was not a lesson. McQueen was not showing you this to scold or completely change anyone’s lives, he was showing you this to give you an idea of what really happened. McQueen was opening a window into that time period and that was exactly what it needed. It wasn’t supposed to make you do anything, McQueen was merely going this is what happened, do with it what you may.
Northup was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who in my opinion, should run away with the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Ejiofor encompassed Northup and never let go. He became the character and I completely forgot I was watching a performance but felt as if I were watching Northup live his life. His range was incredible from scenes in which he was a common man around New York, to the times where he is being beaten by one of the slavers he worked for, to him speaking with other slaves and creating a bond.
It was odd because what McQueen did is handed you personalities that you would of never thought existed. You have the slaver Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who while being a slave owner, had a sense of dignity and respect to him that you could gather that he wasn’t just the salt of the earth for doing what he was doing. That doesn’t justify his actions but it shows that not ever owner was much like the insane Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). There was also a minor character whom Northup met near the beginning named Clemens (Chris Chalk) who Northup had grown to trust in their short time together. It showed that not all slaves stuck together as the minute Clemens rightful owner showed up, he left Northup in the dust.
Outside of Ejiofor, Fassbender’s performance as Epps was next in line for a nomination. Epps was wild, unpredictable, and a horrible human being. Fassbender sold it perfectly and you hated every minute that he was on screen. What was wild about it though was that Fassbender played it like so many of the great cinematic villains and wowed you with his performance that you just couldn’t completely hate him, even though you truly despised the character.
The short cameos by actors were great. Brad Pitt shows up for a short while as Bass, a handyman who was building a patio for Epps and helped Northup with his eventual escape. Paul Dano makes you hate him as Tibeats, a worker on Ford’s plantation who has run-ins with Northup that end with his sale to Epps.
12 Years a Slave is worth seeing based on how important it will be. It showed slavery in all its awfulness but never made an attempt to shame or educate you on it. It merely opened a window to this terrible blemish in America’s history and let you be the judge. It is one of the year’s best films and will be buzzed about often during Oscar season.