By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast) –
Solomon Northup was a free black man with a family in Saratoga, New York in the 1840’s United States. A musician by trade, he was offered a lucrative opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. with a pair of circus-style performers. After a night of celebration near the end of his tour, Solomon wakes up the next morning to find himself chained to the floor of a shed.
As it turns out, Solomon has been swindled, and sold into slavery by the pair. For the next 12 years, Solomon experiences first hand the horrors of slavery, being traded between multiple owners, some sadistic and cruel, others benevolent (Such as Benedict Cumberbatch),
but none of whom truly see him as a human being. Solomon keeps his identity secret for years, knowing that his owners were as likely as not to kill or torture him should they learn the truth. Solomon struggles to survive, all the while holding out hope for the right opportunity to free himself. Escape and/or fighting back are sadly, not viable options.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a lead performance with brilliance and complexity, establishing the many contradictions of life in the Antebellum South. Solomon has lived as a free man his entire life, and has plenty of experience with white people, both positive and negative. However, upon being enslaved, he sees a degree of darkness in man which he likely never would have known otherwise. In his life as a slave, Solomon has to adopt a completely different mindset, a man who is used to giving opinions and speaking his mind soon realizes that these traits will lead to his death. And speaking of death, as a newly enslaved person, Solomon goes through all the stages of grief which you’d expect from a man on his deathbed. He goes through denial upon his capture, which turns to Anger (that is quickly beat out of him), followed by bargaining (where he attempts to tell his story to his captors hoping on will take pity on him). From this point, he goes through depression, and eventually accepts his fate. He never truly gives up on the hope of getting home, but resigns himself to his work, biding his time for the right opportunity.
12 years a Slave is backed by some fantastic supporting performances. Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o plays “Patsey”, a slave girl who is being forced into a sexual relationship by her owner, who is alternately violent and tender with her, all before the increasingly disapproving eyes of the Owner’s white wife. It is the film’s most heartbreaking performance, a tragic victim of circumstances which simply cannot be made worse. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a well-meaning slaveowner who seems disgusted with the realities of slavery, but for some unexplained reason continues to own them. Paul Dano plays an overseer whose brutality is near sadistic, taking perverse pleasure in his hate.
But the most powerful supporting turn has to be that by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, the Plantation owner who abuses Patsey. Epps makes Paul Dano look calm by comparison, a madman who punishes all underperforming slaves by beating them into submission, which has the ironic effect of putting a worker out of commission for a few days. He isn’t blind to the effects of cruelty, he seems aroused by it. Gradually, Edwin Epps becomes more and more unglued, as his relationship with his wife deteriorates, and he becomes violently paranoid.
One of the film’s most fascinating aspects is the way it demonstrates the innate inefficiencies of slavery in the American South. The lack of respect for the intelligence and abilities of their slaves, and the acts of cruelty have the ironic result of lessening progress, and worsening the quality of work. Arguably, slavery also hurt the greater economy of the south, keeping thousands of unskilled workers jobless, and discouraging the need to innovate. There are more moral problems with slavery than one can count, one doesn’t need more reasons to hate slavery as an institution. But the fact that these deluded Plantation owners were so blind that they couldn’t see how badly they were hurting themselves in the long run, is a truth which is rarely echoed.
Director Steve McQueen has delivered a film that hammers home the horrific truth of American slavery, while never feeling like a work of exploitation. McQueen gives the film a flowing visual style and pacing which are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, with each scene feeling as effortless as it is complex. McQueen alternates between deep and soft focused shots to emphasize the emotional impact of each scene. I’m very much anticipating his future projects.
This emotional film portrays the contradictions and horrors of slavery without pretension. See the hell out of it.
Take a Drink: anytime you flinch at the mis-treatment of Solomon and/or other slaves
Take a Drink: for the brief appearances of recognizable white celebrities
Take a Drink: <irony> when you realize you’re playing a drinking game to a brutally honest movie about slavery… and begin questioning your life choices. You sick fuck </irony>
Drink a Shot: at any point you’re reduced to tears