Friday, November 1, 2013
12 Years a Slave
In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an educated middle-class black musician who comfortably lives with his wife and children in Saratoga, NY. During a trip to Washington pursuing a music performance opportunity, he wakes up in a basement and is chained to a wall. Then his kidnappers sell him to Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) as a runaway slave from the South. Solomon Northup loses his freedom, his family, and his name—he is given a name "Platt." He begins to endure his hideous ordeal that lasts twelve years, but he never loses his hope to live as a free man again.
In one of the many difficult-to-watch scenes in the film, Theophilus Freeman sells off Solomon Northup to a preacher and slave-owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After he confronts a crude and jealousy master John Tibeats (Paul Dano), he is sold again, to a brutal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in Louisiana.
Each slave must pick at least 200 pounds of cotton in the field daily in order to avoid lashes. But the hard labor in the Southern heat is just the iceberg. A young slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is not only a sexual prey for Epps, but also a victim of constant torment from Epps's wife (Sarah Paulson) who is equally cruel as Epps.
Misery is the norm for Solomon, Patsey, and every slave. The misery may be damaging Solomon's physical body, but it never breaks Solomon's spirit. He seizes every opportunity to regain his freedom.
In his previous films "Shame" (UK 2011) and "Hunger" (UK/Ireland 2008), both with Michael Fassbender's outstanding performance as the protagonist, director Steve McQueen is known for being shockingly raw and unflinching bold about the characters he creates and the stories he tells. Once again, in the most uncompromising style, he crafts a few arresting characters that can be viewed as the epitome of the ugliest chapter of American slavery history. He masterfully leads you back in time to relive that period, with a tour-de-force performance from an extraordinary ensemble cast, superb cinematic visual, and even a haunting music score.
One of the most mesmerizing long take in the film is when Solomon is hung from a tree in the summer heat, barely touching the ground with his toes, guarded by a slave master with a rifle. It's eerily quiet. Other slaves are carrying on their work and children are playing in the background—nothing appears to be out of ordinary. That is the kind of striking images that director Steve McQueen is able to imprint to your brain.
As if the brutality of slavery is not horrible enough for Solomon to suffer, he also must endure the psychological trauma from the injustice of being enslaved as a free man. Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb as Solomon. He exhibits Solomon's agony and devastation without being sentimental. He portrays an extraordinary human being whose freedom is robbed, but not his dignity. Without a question, Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves an Academy Award nomination. Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised Yale graduate Lupita Nyong'o is surely to be another award season favorite for her unforgettable acting debut as the physically and psychologically tortured Patsey.
Like his past collaborations with the director, terrific Michael Fassbender is shockingly convincing in his role as the barbaric slave owner Epps. He brilliantly creates a complex character that is anything but one-dimensionally evil.
The film makes you feel the excruciating pain as if those lashes are landing on your back; it evokes profound rage toward slavery; it captures slaves' humanity and spirit, as well as their horrific suffering. Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" remarkably puts American's racial tension into a historical perspective and it should be included in every American school's curriculum.