"The fact that we can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value" - Nicole Brenez

Friday, 4 April 2014


2014 Academy Awards

Yes, 12 Years A Slave is as difficult to watch as it sounds. This 134 minute film follows the tragic experience of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery.  It is in Louisiana that Solomon experiences the plight of slaves and the loss of identity that comes with being one; his name is changed to Platt and he is beaten for stating that he is a freeman. Solomon’s sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) terrorizes the slaves on the plantation and even sexually abuses one of them, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). This story is based on true events documented in Solomon’s 1853 memoir: 12 Years A Slave.     

The casting in this film is so good, it is almost hard to imagine any other actors playing the roles of these three characters in particular: Solomon Northup, Patsey and Edwin Epps. Chiwetel Ejiofor is dignified in his role as Solomon which he plays with such power, definitely holding his own in the star studded cast. Michael Fassbender plays Edwin with the kind of heinous, overbearing gall one would expect of a slave owner. If you find yourself afraid or feeling hatred for the character, know that such is the power of Fassbender’s acting. It is Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Patsey, who you will feel an almost immediate affinity for. Lupita carries the supporting role with a whimsical desperation you won’t easily forget. Somehow, the presence of Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) does not quite leave the impact you’d think it would. Samuel is a Canadian abolitionist who appears towards the end of the film, and helps to free Solomon. It is very possible that the heaviness of the film, up until that point, makes it challenging for the audience to rejoice at the Canadian abolitionist’s appearance. 

12 Years A Slave is so unapologetically real, there’s little time to recover from the atrocities you witness in certain scenes. There’s a deeply uncomfortable one when Solomon is forced to whip Patsey who is his friend and confidant. The slave girl whose existence is characterised by perpetual violence, sexual abuse and long days on the field, endures a drawn out whipping which is difficult to watch. There’s absolutely nothing glossy and Hollywood-esque about McQueen’s latest cinematic undertaking. McQueen masterfully brings out the hope and dignity Solomon represents as a free man refusing to “fall into despair” because he was sold into slavery. The brutality might be tough to watch, but the message is certainly more palatable: freedom and hope are universal and timeless values, which humans must protect.

McQueen is no stranger to hard subjects as his past films show. The Turner Prize winner is behind the charged "Hunger", a film about an Irish political activist, Bobby Sands, who led the Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners in a hunger strike in 1981. His second, highly acclaimed film, "Shame", looks at sex addiction. The director is clearly not into painting pretty pictures. McQueen delivers bold films about tough subjects and he is good at it. If you can get past the somber scenes, you will see an impressive story that highlights one man's determination to remain dignified in the face of unspeakable cruelty, racism and loss. It is no coincidence that the film received a slew of awards, including Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards as well as Best Supporting Actress. Lupita Nyong'o made history as Kenya's first Oscar winner for her role in the film. McQueen humanises Solomon Northup's experience as well as those of the other slaves who endured such despicable atrocities. 12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, rest assured, just brace yourself for some graphic scenes.

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