12 Years a Slave
by Hope Madden
Remarkable, isn’t it, that it took a foreign-born filmmaker, with the help of a mostly foreign-born cast, to properly tell the shamefully American tale 12 Years a Slave.
Steve McQueen is the British director who artfully and impeccably translates Solomon Northup’s memoir of illegal captivity to the screen. Northup, played with breathtaking beauty by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a free family man in New York State, a violinist by trade, duped, drugged, shackled and sold into slavery in Louisiana. We are privy to the next 12 years of this man’s life, and while it is often brutally difficult to watch, it’s also a tale so magnificently told it must not be missed.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is an intense talent, though you have likely never heard of him and have possibly never seen him. But if you happened to have come across Britain’s 2002 thriller Dirty Pretty Things and spied his tender, heart-wrenching turn as Okwe, a Nigerian immigrant fallen into sketchy company in London, you knew he was destined for great things.
He’s found that destiny in 12 Years a Slave.
The clear Oscar frontrunner, Ejiofor is not alone as a favorite this award season. McQueen populates his understated, graceful picture with one of the most perfectly chosen casts in memory. Even the smallest role leaves a scalding impression. Whether it’s Paul Giamatti’s casual evil, Benedict Cumberbatch’s cowardly mercy, Paul Dano’s spineless rage or Adepero Oduye’s unbridled grief, there’s an emotional authenticity to the film that makes every character, no matter how brief their appearance in Northup’s odyssey, memorable – sometimes painfully so.
But there are three performances you will likely never forget. Principally, there is Ejiofor, a performer who expresses more conflict, anguish and thought with his eyes than most actors can hope to share in an entire performance. His work roils with emotions few would care to consider, and never does he bend to melodrama or overstatement.
In her film debut, Lupita Nyong’o’s almost otherworldly performance marks a profound talent.
Meanwhile, as the sadistic Master Epps, Michael Fassbender’s performance guarantees to be the most brilliantly unsettling piece of acting found onscreen this year. There is no stronger contender in this year’s Oscar race for best supporting actor, and likely none will show himself. He’s terrifying, and his performance feeds off the talent around him. The raw energy among the three – Fassbender, Ejiofor and Nyong’o – is sometimes too much to bear, and the three share a few scenes that are nearly too powerful to take in.
McQueen does not let the cast run away with his picture, though, and he mines a deep human beauty from Northup’s journey. He never forgets that while justice requires that Northup be delivered from slavery, it remains blind to all those people left on Epps’s plantation, many of whom faced a far more dire existence than Northup.
No romanticizing, no comic relief, just the abject truth of what will happen to a man, a woman, a young boy, and a little girl who is owned outright by the kind of human who believes owning another human is justified. It’s almost beyond comprehension, due not only to the fact it happened for 250 years in our own history, but because across the globe, it still happens every day in the world’s booming sex trade industry.
12 Years a Slave transcends filmmaking, ultimately become an event, one that is destined to leave a profound, lasting impression.