Although it may be tough to witness, 12 Years a Slave is a must-see. The true story ruled the Toronto International Film Festival, and now that it is in theaters, Movie Fanatic cannot recommend enough that it is seen by the widest audience possible.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup has got to be a front-runner for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards with his performance, teased in this 12 Years a Slave clip. The actor portrays Northup in 1840s America where, as our story begins, he is living as a free black man in Saratoga, New York. He hooks up with a couple of circus owners and takes his stellar violin playing skills on the road, leaving behind his wife, son and daughter and their happy life.
After a successful gig in Washington, D.C. he falls asleep in his hotel room and rests knowing that he is earning a solid wage for his family back home. When he awakes, he is in shackles and on his way to the South as a slave. No one believes his story, and more importantly, no one will even listen to him.
He first arrives on a plantation run by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, now stunning in The Fifth Estate). Ford is as kind as a plantation owner of that day can be, but as Northup learns, trying to tell anyone in authority -- or even his fellow slaves -- his true story, will get him whipped. Due to complications on the plantation, Ford has to sell Northup to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. To say he is evil incarnate is the weakest of descriptions.
Northup makes do, living amongst the horrors to humankind that no one should witness. And that is exactly why director Steve McQueen’s slavery epic is so important. It is a chapter of American history that should not be ever overlooked. In fact, we can never explore it too much as it is something that needs to be taught, over and over, as new generations grow up in a world where we have elected an African American president.
What makes the film so hard to watch is teased in the 12 Years a Slave trailer. There is an unforgivable brutality that McQueen shows us that humans did to other humans in this country we call home. McQueen handles the subject matter with an expert touch that never comes close to drifting into exploitation or even telling his story with an educational mission. It is what it is, and the filmmaker astoundingly allows his audience to draw their own conclusions, and through the stellar performances of his entire cast, it is one of the most heartbreaking and uplifting stories we have seen of late.
Ejiofor manages to showcase his gifts on every frame as a man who has experienced the highs and lows of life, all within the span of a two-hour film. He is exquisite, and his challenges and triumphs are ours through his stunning turn. It must have been the most difficult of tasks to capture this character who could not have been more out of his element upon arriving into a life of slavery. Yet Ejiofor plays him as someone who is a realist. He knows his situation, and he must do everything he can to not only exist, but to survive as several of his fellow slaves die the most awful and dreadful deaths.
Cumberbatch continues his hot streak, but it is Fassbender who is truly the mirror to Ejifor’s horror and hope. The X-Men: Days of Future Past star is no one-dimensional villain. He is a man of his times, and in his mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with how he lives his life. Fassbender too deserves Oscar attention, and we would not be surprised if he walks home with the Best Supporting Actor trophy early next year.
Our 12 Years a Slave review finds that while living Northup’s story, you know the man must endure 12 years of this horror. The joy is witnessing the hope that still exists when it appears there is none. It is a triumph of the human spirit and the talents of all those involved in telling this true story.