12 Years a Slave tells the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who is abducted, seperated from his family and sold into slavery.
I have been very, very hesitant to watch this film because of the subject matter. When I read the synopsis I was instantly reminded of a particular film called Schindler’s List which basically landed me in depression after I watched it. However, while 12 Years a Slave is indeed a very difficult film to watch, it is really a masterpiece in its own right.
One thing particularly admirable about the film is its direction by Steve McQueen. The atmosphere of the film is very natural, if that’s the right word for it. I don’t really know how to describe it, it’s like the intense moments and the emotional moments come and go very naturally without feeling manipulative or forced. For instance, the scene where Solomon gets confronted by Epps for writing a letter was a real heart stopping moment for me, even though it didn’t have any heart-thumping music or special editing. Same goes for the ending: so few lines, yet so quietly heartbreaking. I feel that McQueen made the right choice in telling the story in the most straightforward and honest fashion, because it made the message of the film even clearer and effective. There’s this simplicity in the storytelling, from the dialogue to the creation of the characters, that presents everything clearly and leave it for you to judge. The film never shoves its powerful message down your throat like some other films (*coughs* The Butler) but its truly brilliant.
The only small issue I had was with the scenes with Brad Pitt. They were crucial but for some reason they always seem to disrupt the rhythm a little bit for me. I don’t really know what’s the problem, it could be the lines or Pitt’s delivery, but they just seem preachy and self-righteous, even though you know that what his character says is true. It didn’t help that Fassbender out-acted him. But it’s just a minor issue that didn’t affect me too much.
While the film is indeed hard to watch, I must also add that there is something uplifting about it. I think that really lies with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s highly heartbreaking performance as Solomon. While his character is basically in one of the worst situations that could ever happen to anybody, he really showed the inner strength and determination of Solomon to resist the horrendous treatment of the slave masters. He also effectively showed how Solomon was still trying to cling on to the hope to break free, even when he’s close to giving up. Usually, lesser actors would have made such characters seem pathetic and annoying (to me), like you just want to scream at them for being so stupid and worsening their own suffering . Just watch those Korean melodramas and you’ll get what I mean. Ejiofor, however, made the character’s actions understandable, and in a way you can feel that he is a smart man which makes you root for him. You just get this gleeful satisfaction when you see him whipping Paul Dano (whose performance is better than expected), even though he paid for his actions severely. I admired how he did not reduce Northup to a pathetic, hopeless character, but one who knows how to adapt according to the situation in order to survive.
I’m going to be thrashed for this, but I don’t really get the hype for Lupita Nyong’o’s performance. It’s not so much about the brevity of the part; after all, Beatrice Straight and Viola Davis showed so much emotions in Network and Doubt that they were able to blow me away with their nominated performances, even though they were both less than 10 minutes. It could be me too, I was never a fan of those performances where the character suffers, suffers, and suffers and basically there’s nothing else you know about her. I feel like these performances are out to guilt-trip you, like people will say that if you don’t like them it means that you are a heartless monster, and therefore you are obligated to love them. I find this a very unfair accusation to be honest, I’m not denying that I feel extremely sympathetic Patsey’s situation and that she is one of the most tragic characters in the film. Same goes for Fantine in Les Miserables. I’m just saying that in terms of acting, there’s really too little for Nyong’o to do because of the simplicity of the role. I’m even surprised at how few lines she has. But other than that, I’m not saying her performance is bad at all, in fact she really managed to shine in her scenes and she has her share in making the whipping scene haunting. It’s just that considering all the awards hype surrounding her work, I honestly thought that this was a performance that was going to showcase her emotional range as an actress. It doesn’t even have to be an exceedingly complex and tragic role like Blanche Dubois. Ejiofor’s performance isn’t the most complex ever, and yet the simple layers he added to the role made his performance so effective.
Buuuut…I did like how she avoided the manipulative, over dramatic “GIVE ME AN OSCAR!” approach that Hathaway used in her performance. That was the ultimate guilt-trip performance of all time, I tell you. Nyong’o was very good in her limited part and in a way, she was effectively haunting. Yet I’d say that it’s more because of the character’s situation, which really sucks.
Still…having said all of the above, I have to admit that I have no issue with her winning the Oscar. Her campaign is really, really effective and she presented herself in such a likeable and professional manner (her speeches are wonderful) that I was actually rooting for her even before I watched the film LOL. I feel very hypocritical to be honest…in the past, I’ve said that I will never use awards hype to judge a performance, because I find myself going down this invisible checklist in my head (Crying scene? Check. Emotional complexity? Check) and yet that’s what I’m doing to her work here. But I tend to find myself liking the performances more after awards season, where you have the time to really appreciate the performance for what it is rather than pitting it against the others, so I hope her work here will fare better with me in the long run. Kinda like how I feel towards Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.
Michael Fassbender’s performance was much more effective, but I wasn’t really crazy about him either. Like with Nyong’o, that invisible checklist is affecting my appreciation of this performance. I prefer complex villain roles, such as Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or even Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Epps is a very simple, stupid but brutal man, and this is very excellently portrayed by Fassbender. He was naturally menacing in some his roles, and the way he portrayed the coarse and barbaric nature of the man never feels hammy or overacted. Michael Fassbender is a great actor, but for me, no one is even close to Leto’s naturally tragic, heartbreaking and complex performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
To conclude, 12 Years a Slave is a really fantastic achievement with a few minor flaws that didn’t bother me too much. While it was hard to watch, I think I wouldn’t even mind re-watching it. 5/5.
p.s. I need to give a shout-out to Sarah Paulson, whose performance I feel was worthier of the recognition. She showed how evil the woman can be, and yet you can still feel her insecurities and jealousy.