There is a moment in 12 Years a Slave when Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) remarks that Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) story is amazing, but not in a good way. It is a scene that perfectly encapsulates the fascinating and heart-wrenching depiction of slavery that the film presents. It is a tale that will leave you emotionally gutted, and I cannot recommend the film highly enough.
Based on a true story, Steve McQueen’s latest film, and I would argue his best, revolves around Solomon, a free black man living in New York in 1841. An accomplished musician and loving family man, Solomon wakes up one day to the shocking reality that he has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Renamed by those who enslaved him, and beaten into accepting his new identity, Solomon must do everything in his power to survive. Over the course of twelve years, he must learn how to deal with plantation owners (Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender), vengeful slave handlers (Paul Dano), and fellow slaves (Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye) who are also caught in a seemingly endless loop of misery.
It is rare to come across a film that captures both the social dynamics and the overall slave experience as well as this film does. What makes 12 Years a Slave such a devastating film is the way McQueen places the audience in Solomon’s shoes. He forces the viewers to contemplate what it would be like to have their own freedom unexpectedly snatched away like so many slaves experienced in that era. McQueen achieves this by not shying away from the numerous injustices that the slaves endured. The brutality is raw and a sense of dread permeates the entire film. He even manages to make simple shots, such as a paddlewheel turning or ripples in the water, feel ominous.
Although his most accessible film to date, like a true auteur, McQueen’s unique visual voice is still as prominent as ever. However, he never lets these moments overshadow the performances, which are wonderful from top to bottom. Chiwetel Ejiofor is sensational as Solomon. He brings dignity, emotion, and the right amount of push back needed to convey the many layers of his character. He not only elevates the film, but forces the A-list supporting cast to raise their game as well. This is especially true in regards to Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey. As the object of desire for Fassbender’s loathsome Edwin Epps, Nyong’o masterfully balances Patsey’s childlike innocence and the pride she conveys to mask her deep sadness.
My meager words cannot truly express how exceptional this film is. 12 Years a Slave is an important film that could not have come at a more perfect time. While the world has evolved greatly since 1841, race still remains a hot button issue today. It is a film that not only needs to be seen for its overall social and historical importance, but it is one of the best films you will see this year.