‘12 Years A Slave,’ A Powerful Memoir Skillfully Brought To Life
Solomon Northrup: My name is Solomon Northrup. I am a free man and you have no right whatsoever to detain me.
It can be a challenge to express why certain dramas work on a viewer more than others. A film like 12 Years A Slave, which is based on the true life chronicle of man kidnapped and forced into slavery, could function on a level that dwells purely on misery and offers little beyond sadness for the viewer to walk away with, but it is much more effective than that. 12 Years A Slave is a truly gripping story that most certainly serves as an unflinching look at a horrible period of a man’s life, within a time period where injustice against man may have been at its peak in America, but does so with a mood that seems to distinguish itself from other period dramas. It may have to do with the filmmakers behind this feature, the emotional rawness of the performances, or other factors, but the film sets a high-water mark for torturous odysseys portrayed on film, such as this, set during an awful time like slavery.
The story begins in 1841, in Saratoga Springs, New York, where we meet Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). From the beginning we know that Solomon is a free-born black man, who has spent his life learning proper instruction, which includes skills as a carpenter and a fiddler. He lives with his family, a wife and three children. One day Solomon accepts an invitation from men he believes to be entertainers, under the pretenses that he can make some extra money performing as a fiddler in some of their performances. Solomon heads to Washington D.C., without the knowledge of his wife, where he soon realizes that he has been tricked. The two men have in fact kidnapped Solomon and promptly sell him into slavery. From here, Solomon is shipped over to Louisiana, where he then spends a large portion of his life working as a slave in various plantations.
Screenwriter John Ridley has adapted this story from the bestselling memoir written by Solomon Northrup, following his unfortunate and lengthy experience. While there are a few minor details altered or left out entirely, the construction of this story deserves lots of credit with how brutally honest the portrayal of this man’s life is. It is not that the film is lacking in restraint, but more so that it does very little to lighten up the details of a story like this, in favor of grounding the film in complete reality. Much of this equally comes from director Steve McQueen, the British director who has previously made the acclaimed features Hunger and Shame. While I will have more to say about his work soon, I will say now that it was interesting for me, going into my screening of this film, how a black man from somewhere other than America would handle this type of subject matter.
Getting back to Ridley, a black screenwriter from America, regardless of how his screenplay work matches up to the original text, it is interesting to see how he formulated the various characters Solomon deals with throughout. It is easy for us now to look back upon slavery and think about the concept with such disdain, but Ridley’s script allows for abhorrent slave owners to reveal complexities about themselves, in addition to those who are obviously more sympathetic, but at the same time hypocritical in their actions. A number of these interesting touches are present throughout the film, which extends to the very setup of Solomon’s ordeal, where conversations regarding how these men can break free before it is too late emerge, only to follow up with disastrous turns for some involved. There is a certain type of awe, when it comes to watching a well-crafted screenplay be handled with such elegance, despite the horrific scenarios that are on display, which is why the direction (and other aspects) feels like a great extension of what was setup from the earlier writing stage.
McQueen has approached the film with a certain level of deftness, as he contends with finding the right way to bring out the drama of this story, without reveling too much in misery. The film is no doubt humorless in its depictions of slavery and those who were responsible for dealing out pain and humiliation on others, but it is a film that calls on brutality and makes one feel the pain, but has other ideas at play as well. As much as John Ridley’s script delves into different aspects of this story and characters involved, McQueen’s approach to the material from a directorial standpoint manages to place a large amount of focus on the process involved in plantation life.
There is little attempt to have the film wallow in despair with the way his scenes are constructed. The performances from the actors do that on their own, in a manner that is all the more effective because of this directorial stance. Instead, McQueen is not necessarily trying to find the beauty in the setting, which cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is able to do with certain locations, let alone some very lengthy and involved single-shot sequences, but he does distill many scenes down to a sort of clinical nature. Given that the look of the film and the characters themselves enhance the story being presented with complexity, having the simple depiction of actions taking place does a lot to keep things focused.
In regard to the performances, there is an ensemble cast present in this film and it is exceptional work from all. I have been following the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor for a long time now and watching him take on the heft of a leading role such as this is fantastic, especially since he puts all of himself into nearly every scene in this film. Alongside Ejiofor is Michael Fassbender, another actor who is currently at the top of my list, when it comes to admiring actors who give it their all, every time out. Fassbender plays the cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps, a figure still known in real life to this day for his malice. In addition to his treatment of slaves, Epps contends with his fascination on Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, in a star-making debut performance), the hard-working, young female slave, who suffers at the hands of Epps and his equally cruel wife Mary (Sarah Paulson).
Additionally, the film features Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scoot McNairy, Garret Dillahunt, and Michael K. Williams, which is pretty much a treasure trove of character actors, who have all clearly signed on to a very good thing, with regards to the potential quality of this film. As much as it boils down to the strength of the Ejiofor performance, who should rightfully be a big awards contender this season (along with Nyong’o), bringing forth this fine ensemble, in addition to the many other actors and crew involved in this film’s production was a great success.
All of this and yet 12 Years A Slave does have some minor distractions that slightly took me away from the experience. While never feeling long, the film did not quite find the best ways to signify how much time was passing between various sequences. I was also distracted by the presence of Brad Pitt, who I normally stick up for as an actor, though maybe remaining just a producer would have been better this time around. Additionally, Hans Zimmer’s score managed to feel incredibly effective as the film carried on, but also grew dangerously close to his own work for Inception, as his bombastic side emerged in areas best left quieter. I don’t really want to get into the lack of attention paid to the many sets of great teeth I saw throughout this film as well, but suffice it to say that with a film so powerful, the minor issues do stand out a bit more prominently.
Casting these minor squabbles aside, 12 Years A Slave is one of the year’s best film and one that will stand as a film others dealing with similar scenarios will be matched up against. There is great filmmaking on display here, whether it is in the handling of the brutality depicted or the subtler moments of struggle. The performances radiate intensity and earn the gravitas that will be shepherded onto them in the near future. This is the kind of film that deserves the praise it will be receiving. It was no doubt difficult to make and while the hardships cannot match what actually happened in the past, this is a film that feels like a triumph for what it does accomplish.
Solomon Northrup: I did as instructed. If there’s something wrong, it’s wrong with the instruction.