Monday, November 11, 2013

12 Years A Slave Review

12 Years A Slave Review
There are movies every year that I fully expect to gain Oscar attention in January, I can say with no hesitation that "12 Years A Slave" will be one of those movies.

"12 Years A Slave" is the most painful, most brutal and most piercing portrayal of slavery ever committed to film. I've read some critics going as far as to call it a horror film and they are not far off. Director Steve McQueen paints a portrait of African-American slave life in the 1800's of the deep south, with no restraint and no hesitance. He brings his portrait to life with an incredible ensemble of actors, including an utterly striking lead performance by Chewitel Ejiofor. Ejiofor has been acting for quite awhile, but much like Mickey Rourke's work in "The Wrestler," this is an once in a lifetime role for Ejiofor and he more than nails it. If he is denied the golden statue like Rourke was years ago, I will devolve into an endless rant.

It may sound like "12 Years A Slave" glorifies the act of slavery, that couldn't be further from the truth. The movie glorifies Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), an African-American who was born free but kidnapped and sold into slavery in the nation's capital. There are dark forces at play that plan to break Northrup mentally throughout his journey as a slave, but never over Northup twelve year life as a slave does he ever break. The act of courage is what the film glorfies, but in order to honor the act of courage, the film must lead us through the dark. McQueen doesn't just lead us through the dark though, he grabs us by the face and smothers it into the filth of truth. As brutal as the film is, it examines the truth behind slavery and how evil it truly was. I can also say with honesty that even the worst moments in this film have nothing on what I read as I studied American History in college. Slavery was hell for the African-Americans who lived through it, and McQueen accurately creates a world that resembles hell.

The film is fueled by its performances, and even though some A-list actors are seen with limited screen-time, they make that time count. Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch (whose had home-run after home-run this year) and Adepero Oduye give outstanding performances for not being in front of the camera much. Adpero Oduye in particular is crushing. She plays Eliza, a slave woman who viciously separated from her children when her family is bought up by separate slave owners. The scene is one of the most haunting and heartbreaking scenes in the entire film and Oduye sells every moment of it.

There are a couple performances that stick out quite a bit, and they belong to Paul Dano and Michael Fassbender. Dano is another actor who has small screen-time, but he creates a character that gets completely under your skin, never letting you forget throughout the 2h+ running time. Dano may have been the innocent crazy-kid earlier this year in "Prisoners," but he creates the most snarky, nightmarish plantation handler ever. There is a moment in the movie that is so terrifying, so realistic yet so brilliant at the same time that I just wanted to applaud. His character has nothing on Eep, the plantation owner Fassbender plays, who buy Northup from Dano's employer for his safety. Eep is quite frankly, a monster. Creating a man so disillusioned by his job of plantation owner that he's near religious about African-Americans being his property. He is so hell-bent on his beliefs that he even scares his own wife. Fassbender makes every second of it believable though and it is a big highlight of the film.

No matter how well the other actors do, the star of the film is Ejiofor, his work is both gut-wrenching and highly emotional. That emotion is elevated by the script by John Ridley and the musical score by Hans Zimmer. "12 Years A Slave" is a sorrowful movie, but it is a beautiful movie. 


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