12 Years A Slave (2013). Does it belabor the obvious to carry on about this film anymore? Since its initial release in August 30 of this year, 12 Years A Slave has been surrounded by the highest of praises, an insurmountable heap of accolades that has sent other Oscar contenders running for 2014, acquiescing to a fundamental truth: that Steve McQueen’s latest shall TROUNCE any and every film that dares stare down its prestigious barrel. And there’s quite a bit to accept in that statement, mostly because when it comes time to dole out the Academy statuettes, a sweep (in whatever categorical form it takes) is more than likely – it’s the smart money. But since it’s still early on in Oscar Season, it’s still worthwhile, I think, to take a moment and reflect upon this latest stunner from the provocative director of Hunger and Shame. But there is no way to describe the feelings that are attached to such complicated fare, no avenue in which to look another person in the eye and truthfully recall every tiny emotion that is perceived and felt during its full 134 minutes. There is, however, a narrow path, both vague and frustrating, in which to relate a feeling of 12 Years A Slave, and I’ve found it appropriate to do so as such: imagine for a moment the indiscriminate gaze of Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the breadth, the exhaustive breadth of its scope, the horrors found under such a glare and the tragedy and beauty too… Imagine taking that scope and magnifying it to an almost stiflingly close space – like a stranger’s hot breath on your neck – to where that horror, that tragedy, that beauty is almost too much to bear. Imagine a gaze that intimate and more so still, and then find you are nowhere close to perceiving Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. As daunting as that may sound, there are grand rewards for those who choose to submit to this endurance test. But the effects will linger longer than any may anticipate.
It’s the small things that linger longest in this film – a letter burning to embers then to nothing at all, a look, a stare into nothingness that implies the desolation of spirit, a girl dancing, alive and beautiful, lifting her hands gaily to the air like the world isn’t holding them down – it’s those little moments that McQueen is fortunate enough to have captured onscreen and found fit for our consumption. To say this man is a capable director, even before the release of 12 Years A Slave, would be stating the obvious: this man knows story, through and through, and working off a staggering screenplay by John Ridley (Red Tails, fucking Undercover Brother), McQueen takes the pages of Solomon Northup’s own memoir and boldly places them in motion, taking the subject of slavery and the effects it had (has) on the human soul to places never before ventured cinematically. A filmmaker this gifted should be blessed with no less than the stunning cast that surrounds him, and lead by the vastly underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Children Of Men), 12 Years A Slave boasts precisely that – both to the film’s benefit and slight detriment. McQueen’s veteran actor Michael Fassbender is – simply put – a staggering onslaught, a monster to which no nightmare could bring justice. As slaveowner Edwin Epps, Fassbender is a cacophony of rage and lust, man at his basest and most severe. Every second he is on the screen is a second you wish you could be anywhere else than here witnessing the tortures Epps inflicts upon his charges. The frightening personal superiority Epps radiates eerily recalls that of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goethe, with all the bloodlust and vanity that comes with it. The distractingly illustrious parade of actors appear as Solomon’s ordeal continues, and exit as death or circumstance dictate: Michael K. Williams, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, and so many more brilliantly and competently fill out the cast, there almost as a small superficial comfort in between the mounting atrocities enacted onscreen. The only miscast of the film is also its most severe: Brad Pitt, acting as both costar and producer, wanders about the plantation as the (self)righteous speaker for the weak, utilizing a vague Southern drawl not too dissimilar from his Lt. Aldo Raine, and about as effectively. His is a cameo that comes and goes, as most of these cameos do, but remains a glaring bother that annoyingly keeps this film slightly from the heights for which it reaches. But only slightly.
The treasure of this film, however, is found in newcomer Lupita Nyong’0. As the slave girl Patsey, Nyong’o evokes a spirit that almost seems to hover above the reality by which she’s surrounded. Watching her sing blithely to herself as she constructs dancing ladies from corn stocks makes one think that she could be anywhere at this moment, anywhere but at the mercy of Fassbender’s Epps. It’s one of the most crushing portrayals put to screen in recent memory. Mark these words: Nyong’o will have a long and fruitful career in film, so long as she wants it. To witness her in the night, begging Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup for a death as noble and quick as her experience has taught her is the harrowing incident that nearly eclipses all the bloodletting and violence that is portrayed in 12 Years A Slave. And it’s for our benefit that McQueen has put the entire weight of the film squarely on the shoulders of Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor of the highest order, to burden the gravity of the film. Make no mistake: this film belongs to Ejiofor, and wouldn’t be the success that it is without him. Even in the darkest hours of his life, Solomon Northup is never without a small ember that burns inside his belly, seen in brief glimpses through his eyes, and Ejiofor maintains that small fire throughout the film, and wears each emotion – be it anger, frustration, exhaustion, love, rage – prominently in every scene of the film. Such a performance is no different than a fellow human baring their very soul to complete strangers, and that is where we find Chiwetel Ejiofor, bare and alone in front of all of us, taking the complicated and distilling it to simplicity itself. Essential viewing.