The purpose of cinema is often to entertain, but that is not always the case; sometimes, its purpose is to inform, to educate, or to enlighten. Such is the case with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Though it’s certainly not comfortable viewing, it is powerful, emotional, and heart-breaking film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living with his family in 1840s New York. A true story based on Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave follows him as he is captured and sold into slavery, with him remaining in captivity as a slave in Louisiana for twelve years before being released. We are given a glimpse into the cruelty of the slave trade and the struggles that Northup faces during his time in captivity.
In a film full of excellent performances – with “excellent” here meaning “painfully believable” – from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, among others, it’s hard to imagine that one person would stand out – but stand out he does. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a performance that can be described with nothing less than the word “incredible;” the emotions he brings to the story, from joy to fear to anger to depression, are each powerful in their own way, and I found myself captivated every time he was onscreen. Another standout performance comes from Lupita Nyong’o as another slave named Patsey. She goes through quite a lot throughout the course of this film as well, from being the apple of the slaveowner’s eye to begging for death to being flogged for wanting to take a bath. Her performance is also an extremely emotional one – one that will likely bring you to tears more than once.
Often in the film, we are treated to long, still camera shots that linger on Solomon’s face as he stares into the distance, contemplating his current situation. These shots are interesting in that they allow us to see the subtleties in Ejiofor’s acting skills; we can see his emotions develop in real time, like a glimpse into his soul, and it is an unusually compelling technique that works astonishingly well. During these scenes, and during other scenes in which the focus is mostly silence, we are also treated to Hans Zimmer’s minimal but profoundly touching musical score. He utilizes a single theme throughout the film, but each time we hear it, it seems to adapt a new meaning – hope, despair, hopelessness, joy, reunion, thankfulness, tension, and others are all heard in the repetition of this simple theme. Zimmer has been improving with each new score he releases, and it certainly shows here as he deviates from his typically exciting, driving scores to something much more intimate.
This film is difficult to watch in many scenes as we are shown cruelties that no person should have to endure, but it is a sobering and important glimpse into our nation’s past. I mentioned earlier that the purpose of this film is not to entertain, a statement which may draw comparisons to my review of the 2012 Michael Haneke film Amour, which I only awarded 2.5 out of 5 stars because it was such an incredibly depressing film, no matter how artful or masterful it was in execution. Precedent might dictate that I rate this film similarly, but the fact here is that the two films are entirely different in nature. 12 Years a Slave is an often depressing film, yes, but it also has one of the most satisfying endings of any film I’ve seen (you’ll cry if you have a heart), and the historical significance of the story and of the depictions of slavery in the film make this film one that I would entirely recommend…if you can stomach it. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a definite contender (and likely the winner) for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film itself and Steve McQueen as director just might walk away with Best Picture/Director.
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
MPAA: R – for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality