Hello, Oscar! Although the Award Season of adult, contemplative films has just arrived, will anything beat British director Steve McQueen’s latest survival masterpiece, “12 Years A Slave”? Based on a little-known, 160-year-old memoir of the same name, this film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a pre-Civil War, free black man from New York who was kidnapped and brutally sold into slavery to work on the southern plantations for twelve, harrowing years.
In addition to this astounding tale, “12 Years A Slave” has a cast of some of the most compelling actors working today (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt).
Turning in a remarkable and haunting performance is the film’s lead Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northup, a musician living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. When his wife leaves for a few weeks to work as a cook in a nearby town, Solomon is lured into traveling south to play music with a group of circus performers. The pay is good, and his family could use the money.
But what happens is a nightmare of biblical proportions. Drugged into a drunken stupor, Solomon is stripped of his papers, clothes and belongings and denounced as a runaway Georgian slave. No one will believe that he’s a free black, and he’s whipped mercilessly into submission. He realizes the only way to survive is to keep quiet, and to have faith that some day he might somehow be reunited with his family.
As Solomon is sold from multiple plantation owners, intriguing portraits of the southern white plantation owners, or masters are brought to life. Solomon is sold first to the genteel southern gentleman William Ford (Cumberbatch), who respects Solomon’s “exceptional” knowledge. But then after an altercation and also to pay off a debt, Solomon is sent to the ruthlessly vicious Edwin Epps (McQueen’s go-to actor, the extremely excellent Fassbender), who breaks slaves, keeping Solomon’s life constantly on edge. Denying his ability to read or write, Solomon must distance himself from all he once was as a man.
It’s a tightrope that Solomon treads, as audiences are drawn into his world, rooting or rather willing him to survive (which is a true testament to Ejiofor’s fine performance).
Cinematographer, Dean Bobbitt, who worked with McQueen on “Shame,” and “Hunger,” collaborates with the director again to capture the oppressive realism of the south. Once ordinary vistas or close ups of people and objects take on new meanings in the enslaved south.
What one might construe an innocent object, like the red propeller of the slave’s ferry boat, is shot in close-up, violently churning, literally chewing up the water with its blood-red blades. It’s an ominous foreboding of the innocent black men and women whose lives are about to be chewed up as well.
Adam Stockhausen’s production design and Patricia Norris’ costumes are exquisitely researched and stunning in their authentic detail.
Screenwriter, John Ridley, explains in the film’s production notes, “To me, this movie is all about hope, about not giving in and always believing you can overcome. That’s the truth of this story for Solomon as an individual and for all of us as a nation.”
This sentiment resonates as much today as 160 years ago. It’s a skilled achievement by cast and crew in bringing Solomon Northup’s story to light in the award-worthy “12 Years A Slave.”
“12 Years A Slave” is 134 minutes, Rated R and opens October 18 in Los Angeles and New York.
For other film reviews by Lori Huck, check out:
‘Much Ado About Nothing’: Joss Whedon’s Winning Shakespeare Tale
‘Lawless’ Film Review: A Strong Cast Propels This Gangster-Western
Energetic ‘Haywire’ Enjoys Secret Screening at AFI FEST 2011