I think that Steve McQueen is one of the most underrated directors today. He has had three “major” films, each of them starring the slowly more recognized Michael Fassbender. The thing about McQueen is he doesn’t hold back in his films. He shows you everything; he doesn’t dance around the subject or sugarcoat it, and to some that is a bit off-putting. Sometimes we do not want to see everything, as audiences we aren’t really used to getting shown the whole truth. Take Shame for example: movies about sex-addicts are hard to make accessible to audiences, and it went by pretty unknown, partially because of its NC-17 rating, but it was still a beautifully shot movie with great acting. That was two years ago. This year we get 12 Years a Slave, and wow, what a movie.
I had been waiting anxiously for this film to come out because of how beautiful McQueen makes his films despite the harsh and often intense scenarios the characters are in. He has dealt with hunger strikes, sex-addiction, and now he deals with the oh-so-controversial slavery. And yet again he doesn’t hold back. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man living quite happily in free New York with a wife and two kids. This happiness, however, is shattered when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. Thus begins the 12 years that the title refers to, and boy do we feel the length and pain of those years.
Ejiofor gives an astounding performance of a man who has everything taken from him. As the audience, we can understand his sometimes-shocking behavior of retaliating against his captors, but all the while wanting to shout at him to stop. After being free for so long, it is hard to be in submission to someone. His performance will surely land him an Oscar nom, and personally at this point, he is my top-runner for winning.
His performance isn’t the only great one in the film. There are little cameos – if you would call them that – throughout the film by Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, each of who give wonderful performances and in the case of Giamatti and Dano, brutal and cruel portrayals of a slave trader and overseer respectively. Dano’s performance is particularly haunting when he sings his song…
There are times in the film that make you think things are going to be alright for Solomon, especially the friendship he builds with his first master, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (if you don’t know who Cumberbatch is, you soon will). But due to Solomon’s resistant behavior, he is sent away to the far more cruel Master Epps, played by Steve McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender. He is a cruel and horrible master and Fassbender shines, though darkly, in his performance. I would be surprised if he isn’t nominated for his performance.
In the end, 12 Years a Slave isn’t necessarily an enjoyable movie, but it has to be seen. It isn’t fun to see the dark past of American history or someone being whipped to almost an inch away from death, but it is a film to learn from. I feel that with so much sugarcoating about our past, we sometimes are too afraid to see a film that shows us how things really were; when families were ripped apart, and people were killed daily because they were once just considered property. It is a brutal reminder of our past, and it is a film you should see for the lesson it has to tell and for the incredible actors in it.