STARRING: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Garrett Dillahunt, Adepero Oduye, Michael K Williams, Taran Killam, Scoot McNairy, Quevenzhane Wallis.
DIRECTED BY: Steve McQueen
I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about 12 Years A Slave this year. It’s the predestined winner of the Oscar, and apparently “ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER MADE” if you’ve seen the TV ads. But, is it? Really? The problem with overhyping a film is that sometimes you raise the bar so high that the audience never reaches it. The interesting thing about 12 Years A Slave is that it is a near flawless effort that is definitely one of the best movies of the year. You can scroll down later and see that I’m giving it an A, or you can read why.
12 Years A Slave is adapted from the book of the same name about the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south. This movie is as much about him as it is the people he meets along the way. There’s a mother (Adepero Oduye) who is sold separately from her children. There’s the first slave owner (Cumberbatch), who isn’t bad when put in perspective, and gives Solomon some decent treatment. The second one, Edwin Epps (Fassbender) is a monster who lusts after one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). This causes Edwin’s wife (Sarah Paulson) to treat her horribly.
You will see things in the film that will move you. It is an incredibly hard movie to watch. There are hangings, and lynchings, and they are quite extended and director Steve McQueen makes you feel every moment of them. For me, the film doesn’t succeed as much because of the directing of McQueen, or because of the script, but because Chiwetel Ejiofor is literally groundbreaking here. I have yet to see some of the other great performances this year (Redford, McConaughey), but I can’t imagine Ejiofor not winning the Oscar. He’s a revelation, and he’s the main reason to watch the film.
The second reason would be the game changing performance by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender has turned in a few noteworthy performances in the past (just missing out on an Oscar nod for Shame), but he can’t be ignored here. Anyone who sees this film will vote for Fassbender. His slave owner is everything it needed to be. He’s angry, he’s insane, and he’s the perfect counterpoint for Solomon Northrup. He is evil that hides behind the word of the bible. There’s a lynching scene in the film that Fassbender just dominates.
The third reason would be the breakthrough performance from Lupita Nyong’o. Her character calmly enters the film, and works her way into your heart. You break for her. You ache for her. What was so interesting is how when we first see her character on the screen, you don’t sense that anything major will come from her character. You think that she’s just another face in Solomon’s story, but Lupita crafts such a beautiful arc that when she comes to Solomon and begs him to take her life, you want him to. Her struggle is so well defined by the end of the film, topped off by a heartbreaking moment at the end of the film. Solomon can’t save her. No one can.
The movie isn’t profound because of the directing or the storytelling, but because a handful of actors are bright shining lights. While I am giving this film an A, it is not my #1 film of the year. I know, that’s shocking. I can’t imagine ever being able to watch this film again, because it is a really difficult film to watch. But, I am grateful that I saw it. I saw the great performances on screen, and experienced everything Solomon’s story had to offer. Will it win Best Picture? Probably. Is it? Well, it’s in my Top 5. I guess you can say, I’m still rooting for Gravity.
FINAL GRADE: A