“12 Years a Slave” Deserves 12 Oscars

As one would expect a film based on American History’s ugliest practice to be, “12 Years a Slave” is a gruesome, beguiling and unnerving experience that’s occasionally difficult to watch. What one might not expect, however, is that it’s one of the most artistic, beautiful, and exquisitely crafted films of last year, and it absolutely demands your attention.

Films about slavery have been done before, but few match the poise or the conviction director Steve McQueen utilizes in his gripping take on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, bringing the era of slavery to life like never before. But what really makes “12 Years” stand out is it’s dueling, almost conflicting aesthetic blend of beauty and ugliness: One moment you’re taking in breathtaking shots of vast cotton fields and Southern landscapes, the next you’re cringing in your seat at depictions of horrific abuse and racism at its most destructive.

“12 Years” tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free African American living in Saratoga, NY with his wife and two kids in the mid-19th century. An expert violinist, Northup one day encounters two dapper, eccentric entertainment moguls (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam), who invite him to Washington, D.C. and offer him a job playing violin for two weeks, to which Northup enthusiastically accepts.

Unfortunately, Northup is deceived by these gentlemen, awaking in chains and on his way to Louisiana to be traded into slavery like a piece of livestock. Torn from his loved ones and stripped of any and all human rights, Northup endures backbreaking labor and abuse in the hands of a number of slave owners, from the surprisingly sympathetic to the outright tyrannical, with the hope that one day he may see his family again.

Playing a character who endures such suffering for twelve long years is no slight challenge, but Ejiofor’s beautifully nuanced performance makes it look effortless. Though he speaks relatively few lines throughout the film – especially for a lead role – Ejiofor radiates emotion and pain in much more subtle ways, typically letting his eyes and expressions do what words hardly could.

But there’s also a clear level of strength and defiance that Ejiofor brings out in his character as well, as seen when arguing with fellow slave Eliza (Adepero Oduye) about staying strong in the face of despair or when standing up to barbaric behavior of carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano). Ejiofor might not be a household name, but his performance here is undoubtedly something to remember – and one that hopefully the Academy will recognize as well.

Of course, the film features a staggering cast of memorable supporting roles as well, and while the more good-natured characters – like the amiable plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass – do stand out, often the film’s villains leave a greater impression.

This is especially true with Michael Fassbender’s chilling, subtly maniacal performance as Edwin Epps, a bigoted zealot who uses questionable Bible verses to justify administering upwards of 100 lashes to disobedient slaves, as well as his wife, Mary (played with expert iciness by Sarah Paulson), a cold-hearted woman who will unremorsefully chuck a liquor bottle at an unsuspecting slave after suspecting adultery.

This slave in question, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), proves to be the truly tragic case of the film, exhibiting just how hopeless the life of a slave could be. Though prized for her extraordinary cotton picking skills, Patsy is continuously at the scorn of Mrs. Epps and often sexually abused by Edwin, and while Northup at least has the hope of seeing his family again to press forward, Patsy is truly alone. Though she only speaks in about two scenes, Nyong’o – in her debut performance nonetheless – is as convincing as she is devastating when begging Northup to take her life out of pity or lying subject to brutalizing punishment.

And it’s true that, in regards to scenes of violence, “12 Years a Slave” can be quite brutal and unforgiving, but it never crosses over into gratuitous or exploitative. There are really only a handful of scenes where slaves are abused, but each one is perfectly crafted to bring out the ugliness and dehumanizing nature of the slave trade rather than exploit for shock value, and trust me, they will resonate with you.

One scene that particularly stands out for me is when Northup is nearly lynched by Tibeats before being interfered, only to be left on the noose with his toes barely touching the ground. For two agonizingly long minutes, we see Northup gagging and struggling on the noose in a stark, silent longshot before he is finally released. It’s as raw and gut-wrenching as one could imagine, but more importantly, it immerses you in the pain and suffering Northup must have felt, making it all the more visceral.

However, some of “12 Years a Slave’s” most memorable and immersive scenes are the least eventful, as McQueen exhibits an exquisitely artful approach to capturing beauty in stillness throughout the film. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt deserves due credit here, as the film contains dozens of breathtaking landscape shots, soaring over Louisiana bogs, rustic plantations, and wavy fields of cotton to make the setting come to life.

The film utilizes this artful stillness not just to establish setting, but emotion as well. One particular scene that stands out is a still shot of Northup near the films end, looking worn out and exhausted, which lasts from two to three minutes with nothing but the sound of insects framing it. There’s no dialogue, but in Ejiofor’s worn expression you could see the entire twelve years of abuse, heartbreak, and hopelessness Northup experienced stand still in time, making the scene arrestingly intimate in a way few films manage.

At just over two hours, the film is incredibly well-paced, crafting a lush, detailed world without overstaying its welcome. It is moved along well thanks to the occasionally clever editing by Joe Walker.

One of the only truly disappointing things about the film was renowned film composer Hanz Zimmer’s score, which tended to lack in variety and hardly added to its scenes (the one exception, of course, being the previously-mentioned lynching scene, which implemented some terrifying bass-sax screeches). However, as I explained earlier, the film works best in silence, letting the ambiance and images on the screen do all the talking.

On its surface, “12 Years a Slave” might just seem like another historical drama or lecture on the horrors of slavery, but it absolutely blindsides these expectations with its insistence on showing rather than preaching. It’s a vast emotional spectrum of an experience, and at one point or many it will shake you to your emotional core and make you feel something real.

PHOTO TAKEN from fanpop.com