I only have one word to describe 12 Years a Slave – masterpiece.
In the past couple of years, the issue of slavery has been a topical film subject. Lincoln tackled slavery through the courts whilst Django Unchained used slavery as a backdrop to man who wanted revenge. Whilst both films tackled slavery in their own way, nothing really compares to what I’ve just seen from 12 Years a Slave. Nothing.
Before I watched 12 Years a Slave, I’ve been hearing from the reviews that “it’s a tough film to watch”. The question I really ask is why? Now hear me out before you judge me. Is it is a tough watch because of the violence? Or is it a tough watch because for the first time in cinema history, we finally have a film that depicts and addresses slavery in its truest, ugliest and shameful form without it being toned down or patronised? In essence that is what this film delivered – it is a powerful, sad, harrowing and brave direction by Steve McQueen.
I had tears in my eyes whilst watching this film and even as I write this review, it’s hard to express the words. I will try my best though…
“Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost. “Tell no one who I really am” if I want to survive. I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” – Solomon Northup
12 Years a Slave is about Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York who is tricked, drugged and sold into slavery. Through his journey we see through his eyes the pain and the torture (both mentally and physically) of what life was like to be a slave. He saw the cruelty of being a witness to a woman separated away from her children. He saw black slaves forced to work picking cotton and then being whipped for not picking above their average quota. Black women suffered in silence because their masters raped them in the middle of the night. Black slaves were hanged and beaten to an inch of their lives.
Director Steve McQueen doesn’t hold back on any of those issues. He avoids the Hollywood stereotype where slavery is often dramatized as romantic or happy, like Gone with the Wind or taking the complexities of racism/slavery and tone it down into simple connotations like Crash, The Blind Side and The Help. He’s also not afraid to show the contrast of circumstances between people. For example, we see a scene where a black man who is enslaved, curiously following Solomon and his family into a shop, trying to understand the concept of freedom and being able to walk around without trouble. Another example is the cotton-picking scene on Epps’s plantation field where Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) struggles to pick even half the amount of cotton that others do. We see him wince at the pain from the picking experience and yet get a “free pass” from Epps unlike the black slaves who are whipped.
What makes Solomon’s story so powerful is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance and if I could, I would give him the Oscar right now. As much as Solomon was a witness to the injustice of slavery, he too was a victim. He often found himself at the end of a whip. He had to defend himself in verbal disagreements and fights when logic and common sense were nowhere to be seen. He had to accept a slave name that was given to him, no different from how slaves were transported from Africa and their traditional African names replaced with English ones, just like in Roots when Kunta Kinte was beaten until he accepted his new name as Toby. There was even a shocking scene where he was hanged and had to use his toes just to stay alive.
You could argue that Solomon Northup was very fortunate with his circumstances. He was one of the few black men who could read/write and was legally a free man. All Solomon needed to do was get the word out to his friends in the North about his situation but it was tricky and complicated. It was a risk not only to Solomon but for the people he tried to befriend who had influence. He had to accomplish all that without the prying eyes of Edwin Epps, watching his every move. But majority of black slaves weren’t so lucky and in the case of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), we saw the further continuation of the brutality of slavery.
Patsey was brave and smart. There’s a great little scene where she uses whatever material she could find to make dolls on the plantation field. But she too suffered – slave owner Edwin Epps raped her, and jealous of the way her husband looked at Patsey, Mistress Epps took her fear and frustration out on her like clawing or throwing a whisky bottle at her face. Unlike Solomon who refused to bow down into despair, it felt like it was too late for Patsey who had to endure every condescending belittlement and derogatory abuse (both physically and mentally) from Edwin Epps. In one scene she saw only one way of being free, and that is to die. Just when you thought that wasn’t extreme enough, the scene where she was stripped naked and beaten to an inch of her life brought me into tears – all because she went to get a bar of soap. She wanted to feel clean after hours upon hour picking cotton in the plantation field.
Of course the story is about Solomon and his experience but the sad reality is we don’t know the outcome of what happened to Patsey after Solomon left and the scariest and likeliest explanation is that she passed away on the plantation fields.
“And that servant which knew his Lord’s will… which knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself… prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes…” D’ye hear that? “Stripes.” That n*gger that don’t take care, that don’t obey his lord – that’s his master – d’ye see? – that ‘ere n*gger shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, “many” signifies a great many. Forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes… That’s scripture!” – Edwin Epps
Fassbender’s performance is scarily good. In every role I’ve seen him in, he always impresses and in 12 Years a Slave, he embodies the sheer hypocrisy of Edwin Epps. Often quoting the bible, he would use that as a justification for the violence and the belittlement of his slaves. He didn’t care about rules or laws except his own. If that meant whipping, acting cowardly or lusting over Patsey, they were his “property” and felt he could do whatever he wanted. Maybe in his own twisted mind of his he loved Patsey but the treatment of her was brutal and disgusting, further aided by his mistress who watched from the sidelines, adding fuel to the fire.
I know that a lot people will view 12 Years a Slave as difficult and sad but I do see a positive – once you think about it. Solomon endured and witnessed hateful things that robbed every ounce of humanity out of black people, but despite all that he stayed strong, never forgetting where he came from or his family. Slavery broke people and you can’t blame them, but Solomon held on to hope that one day he would be free. To go through all that and survive and still have that mental strength is incredible.
Whist it is unknown what the final outcome of Solomon after he returned to his family, took part of the abolition movement and wrote the book that became this film, it’s his story that everyone should come away with. It’s his story that should be passed on in our schools, our history books, your friends, your family or even in this review – because that is the main point. Slavery is evil and no person should ever have to endure that amount of human degradation and torture. Solomon never got justice because he was not allowed to testify in court because of the colour of skin, but his journey is the one we need to keep sharing.
Whilst the media are very keen to build up the awards season as a battle between this film and Gravity and American Hustle, it does illustrate how good the films were in 2013 and that we are spoilt for choice. However, 12 Years a Slave for me is in a different category of its own and worthy of my highest recommendation. Whilst I do not doubt the other contenders, the fact that so many people (which include me) had an emotional reaction to this film really emphasises that there are important lessons to be learnt from 12 Years a Slave, and it’s something that cannot be ignored.