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Remembering the Powerful Performances of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”

December 2, 2013

By John Corrado

12 Years a Slave PosterA man is hanging by a tree, the soft mud on the ground beneath his feet the only thing stopping his weight from tightening the rope around his neck.  We see other plantation workers going about their business in the background, doing their best to ignore one of their own, lest they face the same fate.  This is captured through a heartbreaking shot that stays steady and never falters, providing one of the most unforgettable scenes in 12 Years a Slave.

After premiering to multiple standing ovations at TIFF and going on to win the coveted People’s Choice Award at the festival, the powerful drama opened in limited release on October 18th.  As the accolades keep rolling in throughout awards season, it’s safe to say that this is among the best movies of the year.

The year is 1841, and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living with his family in New York.  But this freedom is taken from him when he gets abducted and sold into slavery, struggling to survive as he faces cruelty at the hands of plantation worker John Tibeats (Paul Dano) and abusive slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Edwin Epps cruelly inflicts physical and emotional abuse upon his workers, forcing himself onto a scared young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).  But Solomon also encounters unexpected kindness from a Canadian abolitionist named Bass (Brad Pitt), who appears as a beacon of hope during several scenes.

Based on a true story, director Steve McQueen does an excellent job of viscerally recreating this brutal time in American history, without holding back any of the gory details.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is deeply affecting as he plays off the brilliant ensemble cast, delivering a performance filled with unforgettable moments of both hope and fear, emotions that are counteracted by the terrifying evil that Michael Fassbender brings to his role.  Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking, as her character endures scene after scene of unspeakable abuse.  These strong performances are matched by the striking cinematography, with certain shots reminiscent of Terrence Malick.

We are confronted with the brutality of slavery throughout 12 Years a Slave, forced to stare down the horrors of the time, as the stunning performances put a human face to the violence and the camera remains unflinching.  This is just such an impeccably well made film, with the cinematography and sound design working together in perfect unison.  Take for example the scene when Solomon first wakes up after being taken from his home.  He finds himself alone in a dark room, and the first sound we hear is that of clanging metal chains, which are imprisoning him against the floor.  The things that we hear haunt us just as much as the images.

The film is hard to watch without cringing through several scenes, and a brutal whipping late in the 134 minute running time is as graphic and disturbing as anything in a true horror movie.  But things like this actually happened throughout history, and it would have been a disservice to the people who lived through this time to depict slavery as anything less than barbaric torture.  There are so many bleak and uncompromising moments throughout 12 Years a Slave, that during the film we find ourselves forced to remember the thinly veiled hope that the titular number of years promises for the main character.

The incredibly talented Steve McQueen already proved himself as a director unafraid of tackling complex material with Hunger and Shame, and in many ways 12 Years a Slave is his best work yet, a poetic take on the bestselling memoir of the same name.  I’ve seen the film twice, and I think the fact that I’m only doing a full write up now is another testament to the power of the experience.  This is such a visceral and meticulously crafted film, that I think the reason why I am only publishing this article now is because I wanted to make sure that I was ready to do justice to the material.

As hard as the experience might be to endure, 12 Years a Slave is essential viewing.  This is a work of art that forces us to acknowledge these horrors of the past, a message that is masterfully delivered by Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a way that makes it impossible to forget the people who were forced to experience this torture every day of their lives.

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