From director Steve McQueen (Shame) comes the historical drama 12 Years a Slave. Based on true events, the film tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living Saratoga Springs, New York in the 1840s. A skilled violin player, Northup is lured away by two men offering a touring gig in the circus. While in Washington, D.C., the men gets Northup drunk and, the next thing he knows, he is in chains and sold into slavery.
With his former life stripped away from him, Northup goes under the new name of Platt and has to adapt to life as a slave, with masters ranging from the benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the violent and racist Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Through it all, Northup retains the hope that he will one day be reunited with his family.
While I can say that I overall liked 12 Years a Slave, I also admit that I had higher expectations about the film, dating back to the response it received at this year’s TIFF, where it won the People’s Choice award. I thought that 12 Years a Slave was a pretty decent historical drama and not much more. The film probably has some added weight by reminding people how awful slavery truly was. However, even though there are many disturbing and hard to watch moments in the film, I thought that I was going to feel more affected by the events.
Probably my biggest problem with 12 Years a Slave is that, if I didn’t know better, I would have no idea that the events of this film take place over a dozen years. Throughout the course of the film, we see Northup sold into slavery, spending sometime being owned by William Ford, and then spending the rest of the film under the watch of Edwin Epps. For all I know, the film could have taken place in one year, let alone twelve. I’d think that I would have reacted better to the film if it had a more clear sense of the passage of time and how grave Northup’s situation truly was.
However, despite my nitpicks, there is still plenty to like about this film, particularly the lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be a break-out role. Another stand-out performance in the film is newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as fellow slave Patsey, who is subject to one of the most hard to watch moments in the film. Michael Fassbender is pretty much just playing a moustache-twirling villain in the film, though he does a good job in the role. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch’s brief role shows that not all slavers were sadistic racists, even if the very act of owning slaves is contradictory to Ford’s benevolent nature. Finally, look for producer Brad Pitt in a small, but pivotal, role.
Overall, while I’m not quick to jump on the bandwagon for the film’s Best Picture Oscar buzz, I still thought that 12 Years a Slave was an effective drama about a horrible time in American history.8 | LIKED IT