Only once in a decade do you feel that a film has truly opened its soul to you; we have had the likes of Apocalypse Now in the 70’s and its brutal honesty about the destructive power of war. Shindlers List in the 90’s and its personification of mans remarkable ability to change and self sacrifice. Now in the 2010’s we have 12 Years a Slave, which I consider to be a Pandora Box story at its centre, showing that hope can often be the only thing left strong enough to guide you through some of the most unspeakable cruelties.
Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years of a Slave is a historical drama based on real life accounts of Solomon Northup, a Free African American family man with a beautiful musical gift (Chitwetel Ejiofor) who in 1841 who was wrongly sold into slavery for 12 years. During that long struggle, his every turn was fraught with pain of being kept away from his family and the pain of watching his fellow people subjugated to stomach turning horror. But unlike on TV, when the horror gets too scary and real, you can’t change channels.
During those years being sold and moved, he encounters a wide spectrum of different people and masters; on one side he comes under the ownership of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) one the very few slave masters who seem to have some semblances of a moral compass as he tries in vain to keep a family together instead of allowing them to be sold separately. Then later on we have a cameo from Brad Pitt playing Samuel Bass, a builder who seems to be the only white person in the film who voices adamant objections to the treatment of the slaves.
While on the offer more sinister side there is Tibeats Paul Dano a man who is clearly threatened by the far more intelligent Solomon who is fast becoming a favourite of Ford, which causes Tibeat to seek to humiliate Solomon and punish him at his every whim. But the real villain is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who starts off as the most ambiguous of the other slave masters encountered. In the beginning he seems passive and submissive to his wife, but as the film progresses he grows more and more deranged and insane fueled by his predilection bordering on obsession with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a cotton picking slave girl. This truth infuriates his wife (Sarah Paulson), causing tension between the two of them, especially when the wife is faced with the crushing blow that she will always play second fiddle to Patsey. Just to play devils advocate, from four amazing actors who brought you Tyler Durden, Eli Sunday, Magneto and Sherlock, one of my few criticisms on 12 Year of Slave is that I would have wanted to see a little more of these fine actors and the characters I felt remained largely unexplored in the film.
On a film diet consisting of emotional drenched Marlon Brando ramblings and big resounding Al Pacino speeches, initially it perplexed me how Nyong’o’s and Ejiofor ‘s more subtle and less extravagant performances were able to garner a Oscar win and nomination. However upon reflection I realized that the performances were perfectly suitable to express both characters systematic beating down, the time and era and the emotional stress each was under throughout. And because Nyong’o and Ejiofor were able to evoke and encompass such difficult hardship in natural understated manners, it showed their deep understandings of the text as a whole and the unique turmoil of each character.
In terms of an overall response to 12 Years of a Slave; I initially didn’t know much about this subject because back in school I always felt that the slave trade was a segment of history that was always underexplored. But this film sought to correct that, as it offered a great educational experience teaching me a lot about the plight and hardship unfairly thrust on to these innocent people.12 Years also reminded me again that cinema has the ability to transcend from shackles of just being about entertainment and the spectacle, when in fact it can be so much more than that. It can be a way to hold to our society a mirror reflecting only unflinching sincerity exposing the truth of humanity, from our compassionate nature too our darkest and sinister capacity for evil. While at other times a single film at times can teach you a lot more than an entire library of textbooks, because while a good book asks you to engage your mind, a great film asks you to engage your entire soul and being.
Another thing about 12 Years that I enjoyed was Patricia Norris’s good enough to put Downton Abbey to shame costume design certainly which caught my eye. At times it was like watching a beautiful 1900’s painting of the bourgeoisie coming to life.
12 Years of Slave remain on the fine light between the arguments of; is it is important to constantly remind ourselves of the past so to ensure that it never happens again? Or does such reflection only ensure that the past is repeated because by continuing to look at the despicable atrocity of the history, you only succeed in adding more timbre to the blaze of hostility and breed more mistrust. But my stance on the subject is rather cleaner cut; by ignoring of the past is denying the essences of these good people the solace of allowing their suffering to act as a reminder to all future generations of how not to treat people, because whilst the slaves lost their bodies to the slave trade, the masters and owners lost more in the way of their souls and humanity.