Man’s inhumanity to man has been documented many times both in war and in peace. Also it’s been romanticized, glorified, as well as vilified, in real life and by Hollywood to a point that when a compelling, gut-wrenching film like “12 Years a Slave”, a movie so steeped in reality, comes along with its no-holds-barred, no sugar-coated approach in telling its incredible true story, well, it simply takes one’s breath away.
The film is not the tale of the Old South that your grandparents remember when viewing “Gone With the Wind”. This is an unflinchingly brutal, cruel story told from the point of view of the thousands of black slaves who have endured two hundred and fifty years of living lives devoid of basic humanity and denied the dignity that all humans deserve. The story is set in the 1840’s. Lincoln’s Thirteenth Amendment, The Emancipation Proclamation freeing all southern slaves, is still twenty years away.
Boldly and intelligently directed by Steve McQueen, the screenplay by John Ridley is filled with powerful, yet disturbing and vivid images of cruelty and brutality, which at times may cause the viewer to look away. It’s that graphic. So leave the kiddies at home. But it’s a true story based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northrup, a free born, black American, from upstate New York, who was abducted in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana.
Ridley’s riveting script about plantation life in the south for slaves is potent and compelling in its telling. It is also unrelenting in its many references where characters discuss and treat the slaves, not as humans, but as property to be traded or sold, or worse, to be treated as animals. Many plantation owners in the south were laws unto themselves. That shameful period of our history was not one of our finest hours.
Solomon Northrup , renamed by the Slave auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) as the “slave Platt”, is wonderfully portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Look for his name to be a strong contender for an Oscar nomination in 2014. His performance is a finely nuanced star turn, imbued with restraint and dignity without ever losing sight of his goal: to be free and reunited with his family in the North. Survival is his all-consuming passion.
Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps the cruel, whiplash-happy, plantation owner. His portrayal of Epps is a frightening portrait of man full of conflicting and out of control emotions. He’s a Freudian delight on steroids. Look for his name on the 2014 Oscar nomination list as well.
Lupita Nyong’o, one of the young slaves and the reluctant object of Epps’ unwanted sexual advances, delivers an absolutely stunning and poignant performance as Patsey. When the camera moves in close to her lovely, but sad face, her soulful eyes tell the real and dehumanizing story of how the legacy of slavery, as an institution, will haunt millions of lives in the future. Her name also, will be on the radar screen of the Oscar nomination committee
Adepero Oduye as Liza, delivers one of the film’s many heart-rending moments, weeping and constantly wailing over the whereabouts of her two young children. Her children, literally torn from her at the slave auction, are sold separately and sent to another plantation. Every audience member who sees this film, especially mothers, will become immediately engaged. It’s a very strong and compelling movie filled with many strong emotions. Perhaps, Oduye is another candidate for an Oscar nomination?
The dashing English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be all over movie screens these days, plays Baptist preacher Ward, a plantation owner with a conscience.
The entire movie is filled with cameos by some of Hollywood’s finest character actors: Paul Giamatti, as a slave auctioneer; Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw; wife of a white plantation owner; Paul Dano as uber-racist Tibeats; and Hollywood blockbuster star Brad Pitt, in a small but important pivotal role as the Canadian carpenter Bass. Pitt’s cameo is one of the few voices of sanity in this powerful story of one man’s journey into and out of slavery.
Director McQueen and Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, appear to be joined at the hip when it comes to two personal visions coming together as one (this is their third film together). The disarming beauty of the scenery, with its Spanish moss-filled plantation scenes, and its gorgeous sun rises and sunsets belie the reality of the harsh conditions of American plantation life in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Action/exploitation movies like “Django Unchained” are targeted to appeal to a lowest common denominator. McQueen and Ridley are trying to set the record straight as to how it really was for black slaves back then. One often hears people saying how they yearn for the “good old days”. Well, it wasn’t the good old days for everyone.
When the buzz of a “hot and important” film is being cast, even the stars come out and lobby for a part in a movie that will be Oscar-nominated heavy. Everyone loves a winner, and “12 Years a Slave” is definitely a winner! The film opens nationwide this week.