Arts Review, Movies, The Arts

12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave featured image

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Steve McQueen, director

John Ridley, script based on the memoir by Solomon Northup

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Ford), Paul Dano (John Tibeats), Paul Giamatti (Theophilus Freeman), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), Sarah Paulson (Mary Epps), Brad Pitt (Samuel Bass), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Harriet Shaw), Garret Dillahunt (Armsby)

The buzz

When it was announced over a year ago that the award-winning duo of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and artist/director Steve McQueen were combining forces on an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s historically significant memoir 12 Years a Slave, media attention was swift and positive. McQueen, the black British artist whose short films garnered him the prestigious Turner Prize, has already achieved accolades for his features, particularly his debut film Hunger, for which he won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Nigerian born Ejiofor has starred in such British films as Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots; he has been tapped to become a worldwide star for some time now.

The talk at this year’s TIFF was that Ejiofor and McQueen had accomplished what they’d set out to do in 12 Years a Slave: to recreate the brutal life led by the vast majority of African Americans before the Civil War and make the film into a political and artistic statement.

The genres

Melodrama of an innocent robbed of his freedom; Slave drama; Docudrama

The premise

Solomon Northup, a freeman living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York in 1841 is kidnapped by two white men posing as circus promoters and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He spends twelve years as a slave until a Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass, smuggles out a letter from him, informing powerful friends in New York of his predicament. Freed, he writes a memoir, which follows up on the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and helps to influence the North against slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War.

Northup’s story depicts a slow descent into a living hell. His first owner William Ford is a decent man, a preacher, who feels some guilt over the system that he indulges in. But when Solomon fights one of Ford’s slave bosses, he feels forced into selling him to the far crueler Edwin Epps. Nearly a madman, Epps has a huge passion for Patsey, one of his slaves, whom he rapes and turns into a mistress. Epps’ terrifying wife Mary despises Patsey’s beauty and allure for her husband; she mistreats her continually.

Solomon is witness to horrifying scenes of punishment and abuse of many slaves during his time with Epps—particularly with Patsey, who begs him to kill her. During his time as a slave, Solomon has to learn to pretend to be ignorant and humble. The only talent he is allowed to show is his prowess as a fiddler since that amuses his white owners.

Just when it feels that Solomon’s time in captivity will never end, the fortuitous arrival of Bass secures his freedom—and the publication of his book.

The performances


McQueen’s cast is uniformly excellent. Michael Fassbender, the star of McQueen’s two previous films Hunger and Shame is brilliant as Epps, a true villain, whom the actor turns into an understandable figure, torn apart by his love for Patsey, a slave whom he should hate. Also effective is Benedict Cumberbatch—Britain’s “Sherlock” on TV and Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate—as Ford, the ambiguous pastor who still uses slaves though one can see that he recognizes the injustice of the so-called “peculiar institution.”

Even more affecting is Lupita Nyong’o, who seizes the part of Patsey and makes her a tragic, arresting figure. Towering above them all is Ejiofor, who dominates the film with his quietly powerful presence; he has been rightly compared to a young Sidney Poitier and one can only hope that the Nigerian born actor will have the opportunity to shine in many more films.

The director

Steve McQueen’s direction of this film is absolutely first rate. Already an acclaimed artist, he finally removes any shackles of pretense and experimentation to make 12 Years a Slave a powerful drama that a large and thoughtful audience can see.

The skinny

This is the best film I saw at TIFF and one of the finest movies of the year. Though there are scenes of brutality in 12 Years a Slave, this film is a “must-see.” Watch for a slew of Oscar nominations for this deeply humanistic tale of a good man nearly destroyed by an unfair system, who succeeds in regaining his freedom against all odds.

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