Word out of Toronto for Steven McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” was about as high as any film can receive and it walked away with the fests Audience Award. It opened up in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and the general public is quickly learning that the folks in Toronto were right. “12 Years a Slave” walks the tight rope of telling this harrowing, and inspiring, story while also giving cinema’s definitive look at the horror of slavery to date.
If there is fault to be found in this film it will take a better detective than me to find it. The acting from top to bottom is among the year’s best, directing is masterful and in complete service to the story, and the script hits on all points. In front and behind the camera, everyone brought their “A” game and delivered one of the best films of the year.
“12 Years a Slave” is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a freeman from New York in 1841. Two men poison him and kidnap him into slavery. Transported to Louisiana, he is sold and spends twelve years of his life as a slave.
This is director Steve McQueen’s third outing and proves to be his best work yet. That is saying something when his first two were the critically acclaimed films “Hunger” and “Shame.” But what McQueen is able to do with “12 Years” is continue to tell brutally honest and difficult stories, but while also bridging the gap between audiences and his main focus. His previous films dealt more with the inner struggles of his leading characters, and while Solomon’s fight to keep his spirit is key, the story allows McQueen to add the physical fight Solomon must go through.
There was likely no better filmmaker to take on this topic, as McQueen does not shy away from the darkest parts of people, or history. He does not give light to a person when there is none, and he will not let you hide from the injustice of slavery. That is the type of filmmaker he is, a director who holds the mirror up to us not just when we are at our best, but when we are beyond our own recognition as well. He is a vital voice and has created a film that we must all pay attention to.
No less credit should be given to the actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt are all brilliant. I could continue to list more, but this would begin to look more like an IMDB page than a review. There is not a weak link to be found, but special consideration has and must be given to Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o.
Ejiofor, who many may recognize, gets his first chance as a leading man and could not have been given a tougher task, but is mesmerizing as Solomon. Ejiofor can level you equally with perfectly delivered speeches, or with the conveyance of his eyes, never muttering a word as he constantly fights to keep hope and spirits alive.
Fassbender, in turn, is close to the embodiment of pure evil. A comparison can be made to Ralph Fiennes from “Schindler’s List,” deceptively charming at times, but always ready to burst and never sure when, why or how it will happen – like a volcano, and when he erupts it leaves a devastating wake.
In her first feature film, Nyong’o plays a slave name Patsey, who is the concubine of Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Like Ejiofor, she is able to convey much without speaking, but Nyong’o has many of the most heart wrenching scenes in the movie and is a revelation during them. Nominations wait for all three, and it wouldn’t be unconceivable that they all end up with a number of trophies on their mantle by year’s end.
“12 Years a Slave” will floor you. It cannot be brushed aside once you’ve seen it. It reminds you of some of the atrocities in our own history, but it will also lift you to see the power of the human spirit. In the end that is the message. Despite the horrors we have done to each other, man can overcome, and justice will be delivered. Know what you are getting into, but by all means see “12 Years a Slave.”