Many have attempted to tell the horrors of slavery on the big screen. Some have presented this subject in a lighthearted approach, while others failed to peel back the veil and expose its true nature. ’12 Years a Slave’ is a story like no other. It captures the abject terror and humiliation suffered by a group of people and rips the veil of secrecy to shreds, leaving the scars of a system that once supported slavery open and raw.
’12 Years a Slave’ is a first-hand account of Solomon Winthrop, a free man in upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery. He spent twelve years on various plantations in the south as a slave. Solomon’s chance meeting with Bass (Brad Pitt) a Canadian abolitionist, initiates his rescue from slavery.
After he is returned to his previous life, he published a book entitled, ’12 Years a Slave,’ gave speeches in support of abolishing slavery, and aided others on the Underground Railroad.
The ability of ’12 Years a Slave’ to accurately tell this story is due to the remarkable acting abilities of the cast in this film. The story is delivered through words, emotions, and agonizing facial expressions that slice at your spirit.
The mark of a good story is one that educates it audience. ’12 Years a Slave’ encompasses many historical accounts, from ex-slaves owning slaves themselves, to ones denial of the simplest pleasures, to lives destroyed at the hands of cruelty because of a person’s unfortunate lot in life.
’12 Years a Slave’ stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (‘Talk to Me’), Michael Fassbender (‘Shame’), Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Star Trek Into the Darkness’), Paul Dano (‘Looper’), Garret Dillahunt (‘No Country for Old Men’), Paul Giamatti (‘Win Win’), Scoot McNairy (‘Argo’) Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye (‘Pariah’), Sarah Paulson (‘Mud’), Brad Pitt (‘World War Z’), Michael Kenneth Williams (‘Boardwalk Empire’), Alfre Woodard (‘Steel Magnolias’), Chris Chalk (‘Newsroom’), Taran Killam (‘The Heat’), Bill Camp (‘Lincoln’) and Lupita Nyong’o.
In movies, it is difficult to breathe new life into a story based on actual events. Remarkably, Chiwetel Ejiofo makes you care about Solomon Winthrop/Plat as a human being. His performance is painful to watch as you witness this once proud man reduced to a dejected and frightened shell of him, struggling to survive. He tells a fellow captive, 'I don't want to survive, I want to live!' His only desire is to make it back home to his family.
In one scene, Solomon who has refused to sing in the fields with the other slaves, breaks down in despair and sings at the gravesite of a fellow slave. He is able to find comfort through song in this heart wrenching and emotional moment.
Slave owners are men of duplicitous circumstances. Benedict Cumberbatch as ‘Master William Ford’ is a conflicted preacher/plantation owner. He delivers a sermon on Sunday to his slaves while allowing a harsh worker, Tibeates (Paul Dano) to deliver punishment throughout the week. His small act of kindness instills a false sense of security to Solomon. Although he is kind, he is weak in character and cannot keep his slaves safe.
Michael Fassbender’s (Master Edwin Epps) character is the personification of the malicious slave owner. On one hand, he professes his undying love for the slave girl, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). While on the other, he still views her as property, subject to both his and wife’s (Mistress Epps /Sarah Paulson) cruel impulses. One of the most excruciatingly painful scenes comes at the hand of his character. This scene stands out as a testament to his ability to transcend the gruesome event and deliver an impressive piece of acting. His presentation is flawless as he reveals Epp's descent into madness.
Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey epitomizes the tragic lives of female slaves. Despite her ability to pick more cotton than any male on the plantation, she still suffers at the whim of those who hold her life in the balance. She is subject to dehumanization of her character through rape and abuse. Yet, she tries to make the best of her life (she is still an innocent child at heart). This is evident when she is seated in a field singing and making dolls from corn husks. Nyong’o’s moving display of emotion by the doomed Patsey eloquently exhibits elements of desperation and loss of innocence in her character. It is hard to believe that this is her acting debut.
Yet, Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw represents a different element to the story as an ex-slave . Woodward is divine as the Mistress of a neighboring plantation. You can see the utter delight as she relishes in her position . She portrays a manner of indifference as she conducts tea parties on her veranda while slaves wait on her hand-and-foot. Yet, she offers hope to the slaves that when she tells them she is waiting for the time when the Lord will rise up and smite the slave owners.
Shot on location in Louisiana at the Felicity Plantation in Vacherie, the Magnolia Plantation in Schriever, and in Mississippi at one of the oldest plantations, Destrahan (it dates to 1787), scene after scene is infused with the music of Hans Zimmerman. His score infiltrates the horror splashed on the screen and creates a haunting memory.
The film is directed by Steve McQueen (‘Hunger’) and written by John Ridley (‘Red Tails’). It is quite clear that McQueen and Ridley understand the depth of the subject matter placed before them and the high stakes of telling a true story. The result of their labor is a testament to the spirit to endure and survive unspeakable horrors. They are able to bring this story to an audience without sensationalism. The result is an extraordinary movie experience with the power to enlighten its viewers.