By Brad Belemjian
“I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”
Solomon Northup utters these words after being told by a fellow slave how to stay alive.
Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a free black man living in New York when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery with no way of contacting his family. Based on a true story, Northup must endure devastating cruelty by the hands of multiple slave owners, but he will also experience true humanity in an otherwise inhumane world.
“12 Years A Slave” is director Steve McQueen’s (“Shame,” “Hunger”) third feature film and a devastatingly beautiful one at that.
While many films in the past have incorporated themes of American slavery, none of them have truly depicted the horrors of enslavement. McQueen removes the filter and presents the audience with an unflinching experience in a way which only a few films, such as “Schindler’s List,” have given.
From brutal lashings to horrific lynchings, “12 Years A Slave” is an undeniably hard film to watch. However, McQueen’s careful use of the heavy subject matter and expert storytelling draws you in and refuses to let go, even after the film has finished.
A film such as this requires committed performances from talented actors and actresses who are not only willing to portray but become their characters.
Fortunately, the entire cast gives powerhouse performances.
Ejiofor truly seems to understand his character’s sorrows and gives a performance that will not be forgotten. He is silent throughout a portion of the film, where his character’s suffering is displayed only though his distant gaze.
The supporting cast consists of heavyweights such as Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o and Brad Pitt.
The most notable comes from Fassbender (“Shame,” “Prometheus”), who plays Edwin Epps, a cruel slave owner whose primary goal is to degrade and dehumanize his slaves. Fassbender portrays Epps in such a cruel manner that I felt truly upset. While that may seem to be an unreasonable feeling toward a character, it just shows how committed Fassbender is to his character.
As much as I want to say that everyone should go see this film, a part of me says not to.
The violence on display is cruel, brutal and disturbing but never goes over-the-top to the point of becoming unnecessary.
This film deserves to be commended for its careful use of graphic violence that strengthens the film with a balance between cruelty and context, which is difficult to perfect.
“12 Years a Slave” proves to be an incredibly rare film with powerful performances that drive the harrowing narrative. McQueen proves to be among the best of modern directors.
His deliberate balance of graphic violence and a compelling narrative levitate the film to memorable heights that few films have achieved. While not for everyone, “12 Years A Slave” is a film that is begging to be experienced, understood and remembered.