An estimated 10-12 million slaves were brought to the United States in the course of the slave trade; thousands more died during the course of slavery in the U.S. Our protagonist, Solomon Northup, was born a free man in early 19th century New York; he married and had children of his own. Solomon’s parents died free. Solomon remained a free man until the year 1841 when he was tricked into a job by two men; as Solomon travelled with the men they arrived in Washington and ate and stayed at the Gadsby Hotel; Solomon fell ill and the men offered him medicine. This would be the last thing Solomon would recollect as a free man before being tricked and sold into slavery. “12 Years a Slave” is a touching story based on real events as accounted by Northup. There has really never been a movie like this, and much like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity”, it’s an enormously important film.
Independent wunderkind Steve McQueen directs a film unlike any period drama the world has ever seen. Rather than following a typical Spielberg-esque narrative that’s common for this genre, McQueen’s film goes where it wants, not being afraid to allow long, roaming takes into the movie. The film works at times like a documentary in that respect, letting the camera remain on what is happening rather than using unnecessary cutting and sentimental shots that are often seen in films such as this. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt was also a former CBS war cameraman, explaining much of the fluid and intuitive nature of the camera movements.
McQueen is also not afraid to show the painfully brutal aspects of America’s darkest hour as many other filmmakers might be; the violence is uncompromising and is difficult to watch at times. It never becomes something that is distasteful or gimmicky though; no, McQueen is just showing the horrors of what happened in the most realistic way possible. As a filmmaker, he was uncompromising in his vision, and as I contemplate what films and filmmakers will walk home with Oscars this year, I can’t help but think that Steve McQueen may win in the Best Director category, even over Alfonso Cuaron’s magnificent achievement.
Other Academy Awards may go to English actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and a staple of McQueen’s films, Michael Fassbender, in their roles as Solomon Northup and slave owner Edwin Epps, respectively. Ejiofor’s ability to contrast the free Northup with the slave Northup is phenomenal, and he exhibits such a passion and strength that is both emotionally moving and purging; I do not doubt that he will be the recipient of many awards in these next few months. On the other hand, Fassbender’s representation of a nauseatingly harsh slave owner is a performance that will undoubtedly go down in cinema history as legendary. His role as Epps acts as a Macbeth like character who is part man, part boy; a man whose wife domineers him and whose actions and emotions seem to be beyond the viewer’s grasp. Fassbender’s portrayal makes it seem as if Epps has a dark history that he cannot hide from, and that his cruelty is the result of past trauma or experiences. Epps is a truly evil character driven by hidden motivations that could very easily earn Fassbender his first Oscar.
There are very few films on a larger scale that are able to achieve the intimacy that “12 Years a Slave” provided. It is a painful, disturbing, but ultimately triumphant film that should be required viewing for all. It doesn’t follow normal narrative conventions, and it’s brilliant for that. With a Hans Zimmer score, a great director, and some amazing performances, it’s easy to call this film perfect, and it is. Oh, and guess what, it filmed for 35 days using one camera. It’s now one of the front runners for Best Picture. Just think about that for a bit.