All of the nine films nominated for an Oscar in the best-picture category are exceptional this year, and all of them are quite different. But of those I’ve watched so far (I haven’t seen “Nebraska” or “Philomena.”), only one of them deserves to be designated as the most powerful, gripping, moving, gruesome, beautiful, disturbing, infuriating, touching, horrifying, and memorable film I’ve seen in a very long time.
Based upon the book of the same name, “12 Years A Slave” has been nominated for nine Academy Awards including best picture, best director (Steve McQueen), best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), best supporting actor (Michael Fassbender), and best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’O). And it deserves every one of them.
The book, a memoir written by Solomon Northup as told to David Wilson, was published in 1853, and it chronicles Northup’s harrowing story of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he worked on various plantations from 1841 until he finally regained his freedom 12 years later. It’s a story rife with unspeakable cruelty and unimaginable courage, and under McQueen’s stellar direction, the film is a masterpiece.
As the movie begins, we meet Northup (Ejiofor), a free African American living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott), and their two children, Margaret (Quvenzhane Wallis) and Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler). He is a highly respected carpenter and an accomplished violinist who is flattered when two men offer him an attractive two-week, out-of-town music gig. He accepts, but the two guys end up drugging him at dinner, and when he awakens, he finds himself chained in a dark room. Thus begins his 12-year nightmare.
Northup is sent to New Orleans, where he receives the name “Platt” after a slave who escaped from Georgia, and a sadistic slave-trader named Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) sells him to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a wealthy plantation owner. Northup earns the respect of his master by his hard work and ingenuity, but John Tibeats (Paul Dano), one of other carpenters on the plantation, is jealous and begins tormenting Northup. Finally Ford has no choice but to sell Northup to save his life, and Northup’s new master is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
From the time he is first sold, Northup has been unsuccessful in trying to convince someone (indeed anyone) that he is not really a slave, but no one will believe him. When Epps hires a Canadian carpenter by the name of Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) to build a gazebo, he assigns Northup to help him. After Bass arrives on the job, he makes no secret that he’s opposed to slavery, and when Northup tells his story, Bass actually listens.
During his years as a slave, Northup endures sadistically brutal physical and mental torture, but through it all he maintains an irrefragable grace and dignity as the result of his indomitable spirit. Through his entire ordeal he never loses hope that he will one day be reunited with his family, and sufficient words do not exist to describe his courage and emotional strength. Ejiofor conveys all of his character’s emotions and feelings so flawlessly that he makes us want to weep for him. Some of the scenes of his torture are so graphic that they are difficult to watch because Ejiofor makes Northup’s pain and suffering so real. In the film’s production notes the actor explained how he became drawn to the picture.
“When I first read the script and then the book, I found it devastating. It was heartbreaking to look behind the curtain of that period in history. I’d never read or seen anything like it in my life. Of course I knew about slavery but mostly in a general context. This story really does put you in Solomon’s mindset, so that you start to understand what he is going through and what he is witnessing. I really began to feel what this kind of emotional journey would mean to someone. After that, it was impossible to lose it. It penetrated me to the point that I still feel it. It’s quite a thing.
“It’s a story about how hard it is to break a man’s spirit, about what tremendous reserves a man has. Solomon witnessed one of the harshest structures in the history of the world, and survived with his mind intact. For me, it was an extraordinary experience to be part of telling this story and one of the most challenging roles of my career.”
McQueen succeeded in assembling a remarkable cast for the film, all of the performances are simply superb, but Nyong’O’s portrayal of Patsey, a slave whom Epps abuses sexually, will break your heart. Patsey possesses the same strength of spirit Northup has, and the bond that develops between the two of them is beautiful.
In addition to marvelous acting, this film offers viewers stunning cinematography and outstanding costumes and sets, but what makes the movie so overpowering is the general picture it paints of slavery’s atrocities. Parts of it are really difficult to watch, but McQueen deserves a lot of credit for not pulling any punches. In the production notes, the director explained how he decided to bring Northup’s story to the silver screen.
“I wanted to tell a story about slavery, and it was just one of those subject matters where I thought to myself, well, how do I approach this? I liked the idea of it starting with someone who is a free man, a man who is much like everyone watching the movie in the cinema — just a regular family guy who is then dragged into slavery through a kidnapping. I thought of him as someone who could take the audience through the ghastly conveyor belt of slavery’s history.
“My wife found the book, and as soon as I opened it, I couldn’t stop. I was stunned and amazed by this incredible true story. It read like Pinocchio or a Brother’s Grimm tale, with a man pulled from life with his family into a dark, twisted tunnel, yet one that has a light at the end of it.”
Just how many Oscars this amazing film will win won’t be revealed until March, but none of the other nominees for best picture possesses the overwhelming power this one does. Northup’s story will remain ingrained in your mind long after you have left the theater, and the snapshot if offers of man’s inhumanity during the time of slavery is one you will never forget. Give “12 Years a Slave” and unequivocal 10, and put it on a shelf with the most memorable films of all time.