12 Years A Slave tests your ability to stand the gruesomeness of slavery and, to me, it seems Steve McQueen tried to cover every aspect possible of slavery, rather than just focus on the long suffering male.
Review (with Spoilers)
To be honest, I am not sure why as a Black male I subject myself to watching films focused on slavery. You learn about it in school, hear about it from parents and grandparents, and the internet is filled with pictures which make you internally grateful you were born in this day and age. Yet still, something draws you in like the advertisement of horror movies. You know you’ll be frightened, but not by some crazed, sometimes mystical, being, but by something that you only missed out on by 2-4 generations.
In the movie, to me there is only a handful who really stand out worth noting. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup naturally stands out, for he is the lead who we watch live 12 years with swaying hope, a consistent sense of pride, and a tongue which constantly makes you think he has a death wish. Joining him is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, who pretty much is despicable that you hope you get to see him die violently, brutally, and to the point he can’t be recognized. Alongside Edwin is his wife Mary Epps, played by Sarah Paulson, of American Horror Story fame, who, at best, is like a mad dog barking, but rarely having the guts to bite. Then, in my opinion, the only person left worth mentioning is Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey, a young girl who works hard and who finally represents the often ignored plight of a Black woman enslaved on a plantation.
As for the story, we cover Solomon’s journey from a free man to a slave. During this journey we see a man who had an education, skills, and a sense of being dignified, be dehumanized to the point where you realize that, even now, no matter what type of paper you hold, be it one saying you are a freeman, equal citizen, or what have you, it doesn’t change the color of your skin and the way others perceive and will treat you, because of it. Luckily for us, though, 12 years fly by and though brutality is in every other scene, the pain is shared and Solomon does have some moments when he gets even the most minuscule of victories.
Now, I am well aware of the many praises of the film there are, and while some of it is definitely granted, in other areas I feel iffy. But, to start off, I believe there is so much praise that should be bestowed on Lupita Nyong’o. Though this is Solomon’s narrative, her character at times steals any feelings you’d think you should have, or do have, for Solomon. She makes your body shake, your face tense, and may make tears fall from your eyes. As for Chiwetel Ejiofor, I must admit I didn’t think much of his performance for most of the movie, but as the movie comes to an end you realize why. To me, it was because of a sense of empathy to the point of being sometimes like stigmata. Solomon has to numb himself so much to keep hope that you end up numbing your emotions as well. However, when there is a rope around his neck, you do feel your collar tighten; when he is beaten and healing from his wounds, you start to become uncomfortable in your chair like sitting against something, no matter how soft, is just masochism; and though you are given many reasons to cry, you suck it up for you know it won’t do much for you to shed tears. But, during the final scene, when the self-induced Novocain wears off, you shed tears like he does and let go of all that you’ve held in throughout the movie and even find your body, as you leave, numb and shakey from trying to keep your composure, as Solomon had to for most of the movie.
Which leads to me going into what didn’t work with the film, of which there isn’t a lot. The first thing I must note is that it seems the film tries to pull a Django at times by having Solomon fight back or talk slick, giving him a moment where he outwits his slavers and gives you some relief from him being continuously forced to be subservient. Such, at least I felt, seemed a bit unreal and it, to a small point, diminished the would-be villains, like Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, a bit. Though I must not Edwin quickly reasserts himself. Outside of that, though, the only issue I could have is that for most of the movie you may find it hard to connect to Solomon or realize you are doing it. Because of that, you more easily attach yourself to other slaves’ stories, especially the women like Lupita Nyong’o’s and Adepero Oduye’s characters. Oduye plays a slave named Eliza in the film. Because of this be it Eliza, Patsey, or even Alfre Woodard’s character Mistress Shaw, Solomon’s story becomes less of an interest and you end up wanting to learn about these women much more. Perhaps though that is more a praise to the women than a criticism, though.
Overall: Worth Seeing
To me, this is a film you see once and never again. It is brutal, graphic, and I personally found it triggering my freedom and Civil Rights were given only a few years ago. And it really does touch you that deeply too, and whether you are a man and end up feeling Solomon’s pain or take on the pain of the Eliza or Patsey, you don’t leave the film without being the least bit scathed. Which is why I say it is worth seeing. Nyong’o surely gives an award worthy performance which thinking about makes my breaths shallow and eyes begin to water. Ejiofor holds his own as well, but he is definitely put in Nyong’o’s shadow. This isn’t to say though he surely doesn’t deserve accolades.