12 Years A Slave


By Justin Jasso (@jjasso007)

The history of America is fraught with highlights and lowlights. From such successes as the first African American president and the victory of the American Revolution to some of the worst such as the attacks on 9/11 and the assassinations of such people as John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But, arguably, the lowest point in the history of the United States could be that of slavery. Never has slavery been told with such vivid portrayal as in Steve McQueen’s latest film, 12 Years A Slave, an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. McQueen takes us into the life of Solomon and audiences are able to experience the true horrors of what it meant to be a slave in the South.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York. He has a wife and two children, and makes his living as a well-respected violin player, providing a rather luxurious life for he and his family. He is approached by two men asking for his services for a couple week endeavor, where he would play the violin. He would be paid well for his time, being that he is a renown violinist. With Solomon’s family having departed for a couple weeks, he decides to take the opportunity to pass the time.

After one particular night, he is drugged and awakens the next day in chains with the news that he is a “runaway slave” and being take to Louisiana to be sold. The story follows his 12 years of being a slave, and going through the hands of different owners, from the compassionate William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the abusive owner believing he is following scripture with his laves, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), to his eventual freedom.

If any film is able to depict the cruelty that humans are capable of, 12 Years A Slave is that film. Tibeats, portrayed by Paul Dano, a worker on Ford’s land, looks at African Americans as less than people. And while he is but a worker himself, he views himself as much superior to the slaves and exerts himself as such. He is to the point where he’ll exact punishment on a slave even if he is in the wrong himself. Yet, far worse than Tibeats is Edwin Epps himself. A cotton plantation owner known for his cruelty and for breaking slaves, Epps believed in the bible and scripture, yet was well known for his alcohol use and brutality. Epps looks at the slaves as his property and, thus, can do whatever he wants with them. Should a slave not accumulate at least 200 pounds of cotton with their picking, they will be lashed. If a slave doesn’t do as told when told, they are to be lashed. If Epps is drunk and wants to rape a female, they will be raped. The true brutality is seen when Epps makes Northup lash another slave.

12 Years A Slave is dominated by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Northup. And though he may not be a household name, he has appeared in such films as Serenity, Inside Man, Children of Men, and Salt. Much like Daniel Day-Lewis, Ejiofor not only performs the role but becomes Solomon Northup himself, putting him in the upper echelon of actors for 2013, if not at the peak himself. Ejiofor portrays his comfortable life at home prior to slavery and his desolation while in captivation equally well, with much more garnered towards the later. McQueen leaves lingering shots on Ejiofor who is able to express through his entire body the suffering ad pain, the confusion and despair that this man, as well as slaves of the time, had to endure. A true Oscar moment comes at the very end of the film that has the ability to bring tears to the even the hardest of humans.

12 Years A Slave has to be considered the leading candidate for Best Picture of the year. There hasn’t been a film with such performances and with as unsettling a story as only one of this kind can portray. While the elements of faith and not giving up resonate strongly, the true brutality and cruelly that humans are capable of lingers with us after far after the conclusion of the film. This film is not “light” by any stretch of the imagination, and deals with heavy topics regarding slavery, human rights, and the extremes people will go to in order to survive or be happy. But the experience one leaves with and the new found knowledge of such a dark part of our history more than makes up for the emotional ride we are taken on. Truly one of the great films of the year and all due respect to Steven McQueen and everyone associated with the production.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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