Sunday, April 27, 2014

12 Years A Slave (2013) - FilmReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash

"Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost. 'Tell no one who I really am' if I want to survive. I don't want to survive, I want to live."

Adapted from the memoirs of African American Solomon Northup, director Steve McQueen ("Hunger", "Shame") tells of kidnapping and mistaken identity, culminating in abuse and slavery. Though Solomon was born free in New York, he was abducted in 1841 and sold, forced to work on plantations in Louisiana. For twelve years he suffered cruelty, both physical and emotional, and witnessed the suffering of others just like him, as the law gave no protection - they were simply "property" to their masters. It is ironic that he was a learned man, intelligent and of standing within his own community, and yet during his imprisonment this knowledge was kept concealed from those who abused him. Mistaken for another man, he worked hard, endured pain and humiliation, but remained focused on the day when he would be free again, and return home to his family...

It has to be said that all the cast play their parts not just well but perfectly balanced and expertly embraced, credit going to everyone involved in this fine production. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the most warming performance as Solomon, with actress Lupita Nyong'o tugging at the heart strings portraying the role of Patsey, a fellow slave at one of the plantations where Solomon eventually ends up. It appears director McQueen cannot put a foot wrong with his selection of films; he has won awards, and been nominated so many times for his achievements that it is an honour to watch a master at his craft, experiencing the finest of cinema.

If you haven't already read the cast list then there are some nice surprises. First up is English actor Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock", "Star Trek: Into Darkness") as kind plantation owner William Ford, who is so impressed by the slave's idea of transporting logs across a swamp that he gives Northup a violin as a gift. Of course, even here, tensions are high as Northup is targeted by Over-seer John Tibeats, who clearly despises him. After a short altercation the slave is almost lynched, and he is sold to new owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). This is where the story takes a far more sinister turn...

12 Years A Slave

At this point the plot really steps up as God-loving Epps and his wife Mary (powerfully played by Sarah Paulson) demonstrate such cruelty towards their "property", the former inflicting beatings for failure to reach expected cotton production targets: 200 pounds daily. Patsey's hard work in collecting 500-plus is applauded by her owner, who not just rapes her regularly but develops an obsession with the young slave. This eventually leads to persecution from Mary, who both humiliates and physically attacks her. McQueen certainly does nothing to shy away from the brutalities of slavery, with scenes of lashings that will likely upset. It could be argued that the director wished simply to produce an accurate portrayal of life during the early to mid-1800s for the average slave, and he manages it with stark honesty.

Another welcome casting comes in the form of Brad Pitt (also producer in this feature), whose performance as gentle laborer Samuel Bass works well in contrast to the hard and unforgiving Epps. Northup and the newcomer strike a close bond while building a gazebo, and the latter learns of the slave's true story - how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The scenes between Ejiofor and Pitt are touching and well-written, as are those between Ejiofor and Nyong'o; you can appreciate why Nyong'o won the "Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress", her acting certainly brought a tear to this reviewer's eye!

"12 Years A Slave" is visually breathtaking and stunningly-shot, rich in colour and depth, making everything of John Ridley's screenplay. The time period is splendidly reproduced. After an initial meeting, McQueen and Ridley were keen to develop a feature that would focus on slavery in America. It was thanks to McQueen's wife that Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir came to light. The director commented in an interview (NPR), "I read this book, and I was totally stunned. It was like a bolt coming out of the sky; at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn't know this book." I can fully understand the passion felt for this feature, having not been so emotionally affected by a single movie since Steven Spielberg's 1993 historical drama "Schindler's List". You cannot help but feel empathy for the slaves, and Northup's plight, rage toward Epps and his jealous wife, and an overall sense of appreciation for what those in slavery had to face during those harsh times.

Just like Spielberg's masterpiece, McQueen delivers a painful but insightful biopic, thought-provoking in ways I had not expected. It is even more poignant when you consider that racism is still existent in the modern world, and not just a warped attitude from a bygone era. Such mindsets are heartbreaking, and with "12 Years A slave" we get to see racial cruelty and tragedy in all their forms. Finally, no film is ever complete without its music score, and composer Hans Zimmer ("Crimson Tide", "Inception") excels at his art, achieving the right mixture to compliment the sentimental tides that each scene produces. I highly recommend this deeply powerful and moving drama.

Purchase 12 Years A Slave from the Store:
DVD / Blu-ray - Running time: 134 minutes

Picture: 12 Years: Official website