200 Years in the Making
Main Cast: Chiwetal Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender
Director: Steve McQueen
Given the continued popularity of the flag of the former Confederate States of America – featured prominently on the current state flag of Mississippi – I can see why film makers still feel the need to revisit the horror that was the American slave trade. Although it’s been over 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s entirely appropriate to keep the greatest moral failing in the history of the “land of the free” fully visible to 21st century audiences. And if there’s anything that 12 Years a Slave does, it shockingly portrays the cruel insanity of American slavery with graphic and cringe-inducing intensity.
Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetal Ejiofor), the movie tells the story of an upstanding and free black citizen of Saratoga, New York who is drugged, kidnapped, shipped south and sold into slavery in the rural bayou country of Louisiana in 1841, separating him from his lovely wife and two beautiful small children for twelve years of the darkest, vilest servitude. When he protests his freedom, he is beaten into submission. When he doesn’t pick enough cotton, he is whipped. When he disobeys or fails to read the mind of his master, he is strung up from a tree by his neck. Despite the hopelessness of his plight he still manages to maintain hope, help others worse off than he and relentlessly seek a path to freedom. It’s an incredible true story and I’m surprised that it’s never been made into a feature film before.
As I’ve mentioned, the explicit and horrific beating scenes are shockingly realistic and painful to watch, but the true strength of the movie lies in the performances. Ejiofor conveys such a wide range of emotions – pride, anger, pity, sorrow, fear – from scene to scene that it’s simply amazing to watch. While he dominates every scene, butting heads with the many foul aspects of institutionalized slavery, he’s at his best in several simple quiet scenes, with no dialog or music, just the dripping Louisiana cypress forest and the drone of countless insects in the background. Ejiofor is stellar throughout and he’s supported by two resoundingly despicable and convincing performances from Paul Dano as the conniving and cowardly Master Tibeats and Michael Fassbender as the sadistic Master Epps – as well as a brief appearance by Paul Giamatti that made my skin crawl.
The riveting storyline and strong performances go a long way, but as someone who read the surprisingly good book, the other aspects of the film left me disappointed. The music and cinematography are both rather uninspiring, but my main frustration is with the screenplay by John Ridley and the direction by Steve McQueen. The screenplay is overly sparse at times, relying too often on Ejiofor’s furrowed brow and sorrowful eyes to carry the story. In addition, tense dramatic crescendos develop repeatedly but are left hanging without a satisfactory finish. Ejiofor’s quiet scenes mentioned earlier are touching and almost magical at times – providing a welcome break between torture sessions – but they lack any effective incorporation into the rest of the film. It seems to me that the filmmaker’s primary goal was to make sure the appalling violence was portrayed as convincingly as possible – a goal they achieve without a doubt – but the dramatic and emotional cohesion of the story seems to have been given inadequate attention.
In the end, 12 Years a Slave is a realistic portrayal of American slavery that doesn’t hesitate to graphically display it’s most vicious and violent features. Unfortunately, while Northrup’s true story is incredible and many of the performances are fantastic, the movie’s not as good as it should have been. I can recommend it based on Ejiofor’s performance alone, but it may have fallen victim to high expectations, getting only four out of five stars from me.
You can see my comparison of the book vs. the movie over at Readers Lane: