Imagine that you are living a life of complete freedom. You come and go as you please, partake in the arts, read books, do whatever your heart desires. Then imagine that in an instant, without warning, all that is taken from you. Control over your life is over. No family, no books…no freedom. You might not be in a physical cage or jail cell, but the result is still the same. Your life as you knew it no longer exists. Such is the story of Solomon Northrup. If it wasn’t true, “12 Years a Slave” would be too horrific to be believed. Directed by Steve McQueen, with screenplay by John Ridley based on Solomon Northup’s book, “Twelve Years a Slave” is the shocking, authentic tale of Solomon Northrup.
An educated, free black man in 1841 Saratoga, NY, Solomon lives an upper middle-class life as a musician with a wife and two children. In his wildest dreams he never envisions that when he says good-bye to his family who are leaving on a trip, 12 years would pass before he would see them again. While his family is away, Solomon accepts an opportunity to go on the road with two performers and earn some extra money. If you have a bad feeling about this endeavor, you won’t be wrong. What follows are Solomon’s 12 harrowing years in slavery that defy adequate description.
As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an astounding performance. His face is so expressive and his portrayal so grounded in reality, that Ejiofor commands the screen whenever he is on it. Watching him come to grips with his changed circumstance is painful to watch, he’s that good. His scenes with his final master, Epps (Michael Fassbender), are extremely tough as are the scenes with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the slave who has the misfortune to catch the eye of Epps.
Nyong’o has some of the film’s roughest moments. Patsey is despised by Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) and suffers mightily because she is “favored.” With Master Epps she is either slapped, whipped or raped on a daily basis. You almost hate seeing her on the screen, because you know something terrible is about to happen to her.
Although Epps’ character seems stereotypical, Michael Fassbender gives it everything he has. He provides a memorable performance in what can only be described as a mentally unstable, vicious slave owner.
“12 Years a Slave” has an outstanding cast in some very ugly roles. Paul Giamatti as the slave trader and Paul Dano as Solomon’s first overseer are both brutally terrific. As Mr. Ford, Benedict Cumberbatch is very credible as Solomon’s benevolent first owner, but without the backbone or money to do anything to change Solomon’s situation except to make it ultimately worse. Sarah Paulson is appropriately ice-cold as Epps’ betrayed wife. Alfre Woodard as the slave turned mistress and Brad Pitt as the Canadien laborer who befriends Solomon are also excellent in lesser, albeit important roles.
The one downside to the film is the music. It’s not that Hans Zimmer’s score is bad–far from it–but it is used so heavily that it becomes extremely intrusive and distracting. It’s almost as if McQueen is afraid we won’t understand the horror without it being telegraphed. He needn’t worry.
“12 Years a Slave” may be the first film to address slavery in all its ugliness head-on. It’s hard to say that you will be entertained, but you will feel that your time has been well spent and might make you wonder how a country founded upon freedom could so easily deny it for so long to others.