Seemingly unaffected by the atrocities being done to other black men, women and children down south, Solomon Northup's life is one of comfort and is in high standing with the largely white community he resides in. It's only after becoming the victim of a couple of slaver's elaborate plan to sell him to a hidden group of Southern slave traders puts him in right in the middle of what amounts to any persons single worst nightmare where Solomon Northup's majestic reality is turned upside down.
This film is based off the true story of Northup, who you can tell simply by the title of the film, 12 Years A Slave, lived, nay...survived as a slave for 12 long years of his life. While the many horror stories of being a slave or a person of African descent in the south during that time are well documented and still taint our great nation's history to this day, Northup's story is an entirely different and unique kind of evil and injustice than we are accustomed to.
Much like the many sad and horror-filled stories that accompany the Jewish community from their near extinction at the hands of a mad man during World War 2, stories of a not so different nature but are no less tragic in their own ways also spew forth from the Civil War era and what is looked upon as one of the greatest injustices to fall upon any man, woman or child within our borders during our country's very brief existence in comparison to other nations around the world. So, Northup's story, as tragic as it is, unfortunately is just a different perspective on a subject matter that has been explored and examined time and time again, but in this case it is a story well worth traveling down that road one more time for.
Solomon Northup's story isn't that far removed from that of a modern day innocent man found guilty of crimes he didn't commit and then forced to live in what can only be described as hell on Earth because of it. But even that comparison lacks the true horror of Northup's story, as even a wrongly imprisoned man or woman has some semblance of rights by the law. As implied by those opening paragraphs to this review, Northup had no such avenue of diplomacy, had no such laws to protect his rights as a human being and as such had no rights to preserve his own life. He was cattle, he was live-stock, he wasn't anything beyond a bill of sale for whomever held the receipt.
That is the true power of his story and what separates director Steve McQueen's feature from the vast other films that tackle many similar subjects on the matter. Unlike most slaves during that time, which were beaten down and never given a chance to actually live a real life, learn to read, form a family, learn to love and be loved in return, Northup's persecution was magnified by the fact that he had actually lost something. When he woke up after a night of pleasantries in our nation's capitol only to find himself shackled to the ground inside a basement far from anyone who could hear his cries of pain and anguish, he lost all of that and then some.
You see, it is one thing to be born and raised into servitude where you are taught from day one that you are not a person, that you aren't worth a dam beyond the amount of cotton you can pick in a day. It is an entirely different beast to know none of that is true but be unable to do anything about it lest you be beaten by the whip and have your flesh flayed from your body and dying from your wounds or worse yet, being left to live so that you may endure such pain again and again if you dare speak out against your master again.
The magnitude of this incredible tale of survival is only heightened with the large cast of actors who do nothing if not pour their heart and soul into a number of performances that are among this years best, that's including a handful of roles by actors in roles that amount to nothing more than a mere cameo appearance in most circumstances. Seeing the likes of Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt show up in these small, but extremely significant roles helps make every single moment of Northup's harrowing journey more captivating through their shear precense alone.
But the main cast is what truly sells us on Northup's tale of oppression. First there is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, who has always brought his A game to every role he has ever had. Never one to phone in even a single line of dialog, his performances have always been a highlight of every film he has been attached to. However, his performance as Northup is likely a career and morale high for the talented actor as he brings a humanity and soul to the man which makes his oppression that much more crushing as we see him try to hang on to any sliver of hope he can so that he may one day see his family again. The soul of Northup is seen through and through in Ejiofor's emotionally gripping performance.
While his performance was expected to be nothing less than amazing, his thunder is stolen a little by the performance of Lupita Nyong'o who plays Patsey, another slave on the same plantation as him who has the added horror of being their master's plaything. Through her eyes, eyes filled with pain, anguish and a sadness that could never be satiated, we see the worst of what it is to be a black woman in the South during that era as she is repeatedly under scrutiny by her master. He loves her, but hates that he does (as does his wife) and on a daily basis puts her skills in the cotton fields on a pedestal where if she were to drop quality in any way, she would suffer even more.
Speaking of her master, Michael Fassbender is yet another actor who never fails to elevate any production he is part of. He wowed audiences in a startling raw performance in McQueen's last film Shame, and while this first appears to be a more straight forward role as the villain of the film, he of course takes it a few extra steps further. His insanity isn't the stereotypical kind. Fassbender lends a bit of unpredictability to his craziness. Just when you think he will lash out or kill someone, he unexpected draws back. But you never know if he is just pausing for a more proper moment to strike or has actually been talked down. Look no further than a scene between him and Northup involving a letter and a lantern for one of the most intense films of any film released this year.
With so many fantastic actors putting in some of their best work even for smaller roles and a story that is as fascinating to watch unfold as it is horrifying to simply take in and aborb, it is hard to find any sort of fault to the film. If there were one issue that could have been changed and would have significantly altered the effect the film had, it would have to be its title. The title for the film of all things does take some of the tension when you realize it tells you in an indirect manner that Northup's persecution will only last that many number of years.
Now, the film evades that criticism slightly by never giving us any real sense of time passing aside from Northup getting some grey hairs and his whithering spirit that keeps getting ever closer to breaking, but there is always that thought in the back of your head that you know this won't last forever which makes the scenes with him suffering in a severe amount of hopelessness near the end lose some of their weight. But if you can only find fault with a film's title and nothing else, that should signify the quality of the production and why this is a must see film, not for just this year, but in general. It likely won't open your eyes to anything you didn't already know, but there is no denying the impact of Solomon Northup's tale and the tragedy that had befallen him.
There is nothing left to be said about 12 Years A Slave other than this is a film you must see now. Its power, its legacy and its impact are unlike anything else you will see this year and with so many talented people in front of and behind the camera working to bring you Solomon Northup's story, there is little chance that you will walk away from the experience the same person as you were when you entered that theater.