As we quickly approach Oscar season, “12 Years a Slave” will be the film to talk about. It is a gut-wrenching film that forces its viewers to witness the horror of our nation’s past. It is a cold and painful experience that is brought to life by raw, emotional performances from its two leads.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a free middle-class black man living in New York City, who, after a meeting with two shady businessmen finds himself drugged and stripped of identification. This leaves him as nothing but a piece of property heading down to the Deep South, where he will be beaten and broken during his 12 years of forced slavery.
The genius of the film comes from how it defies the standard Hollywood formula. Unlike many protagonists, Solomon’s strength comes from his ability to not resist, where other films depict slaves fighting back against their owners. Solomon has no one to turn to because anyone in a position of power also has the power to kill him on the spot. He is trapped, which gives the film almost a “Saw” level of torture on the main character. We watch and feel for Solomon through the years as he is slowly broken, whether it is through whipping, hanging or emotional suffering. The entire film is about suffering, and it shows it in a way that most modern films are too shy or scared to show.
The entire film rises and falls as Ejiofor performs, and he does so without missing a beat. He has a lot of emotions to show during the film’s long run time, and for the most part, he really makes you feel for Solomon. The most terrifying scene is the one where we finally see him have his emotional breakdown, which was not caused by beatings but by song instead.
Most of the not-so-subtle performances come from the large supporting cast, which includes Benedict Cumberbatch as an innocent Baptist slave owner, Paul Dano as a naïve foreman and Sarah Paulson as a slave owner’s wife who is obsessed with female slaves. The film throws a lot of famous celebrities into these roles, and while they all are admirable in their performances, they offer nothing more than mere distractions from the film.
However, the star of the film is clearly Michael Fassbender as the slave owner Edwin Epps. Words like “powerful” and “terrifying” often get thrown around when describing a great performance, but Fassbender’s work here deserves both terms. Every line he says oozes with vile hatred toward the slaves, especially toward one female slave in particular. Whenever Fassbender is on the screen he will keep you transfixed on every terrible word and action he is about to cause. You will be mentally disgusted at what you see from him, but it is almost impossible. Especially when it comes to his scenes with Solomon, where we see a character that takes true delight in the horrible situations he puts Solomon through.
Still, the movie is not perfect. This is director Steve McQueen’s biggest film to date and while his previous work hints at the darker themes of modern-day society, here he seems a bit reserved. Sure, there are moments of pure brilliance, but then there are a lot of moments where you see him trying a bit too hard to telegraph the intention of certain scenes. It almost feels like he was simply going down a list of things you need to include in a film about slavery and then he tried to make it as stylistic as possible.
“12 Years a Slave” is a film that would not exist without ambition from everyone involved. It is clear that everyone is putting their best foot forward, especially Fassbender and Ejiofor. A few missteps keep it from being amazing, but it is easily one of the better films of the year, a surefire candidate for Best Picture and a film that will be talked about for months. It is an artful and unflinching film that must be seen.