As said best by one of the characters in the film; ‘Your story is amazing but in no good way’. 12 years a slave captures the horrific yet captivating true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was captured and sold into slavery in the south. The movie is set over a period of 12 years, as indicated by the title, and showcases the various brutalities and inhumane events that Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is forced to face.
In my view, the treatment of the african american race before the abolishment of slavery is what I have come to call as the ‘second holocaust of america’, with the first being the inhumane treatment of the Native Indian race. This movie really captures the ‘auschwitzian’ elements of this time period in a manner that induces a feeling of disgust and horror from the audience. This film was not an easy watch, but I never expected it to be. One of the biggest achievements of this film, amongst many others, was its ability to paint an accurate picture of the time which it is set in. From the clothing, to the set design to even the dialects spoken by individuals of different social classes, the smallest details were not left without attention.
A special recognition must also be given to the performances in this movie, particularly those by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, the latter of who plays a egotistic Georgian slave owner. While Chiwetel expresses his character’s interests in a more muted and facially expressive manner, Fassbender exploits the use of dialogue and aggressive bodily motions to introduce a sense of authority in every scene that he is in. The contrast between these two characters made this movie all the more intriguing to watch. Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, amongst other ‘mainstream’ hollywood actors, also make brief cameos in this film. I wouldn’t say that they are central characters in this film, but it was nice to see their on-screen presence regardless.
An important point that I feel audiences should be aware before watching this film, is that ’12 Years a Slave’ entrusts its viewers to take the leap forward. What I mean by this is that the film expects its audience to make conclusions based on observations. Certain character arks or motivations are not explicitly stated in the film, and it is up to the audience member to make that judgement call. I love movies that do this because it is an ingenious way for the filmmaker to engage his/her audience.
An example of this feat in this movie comes when Solomon is attempting to tighten the strings on his violin. The camera repeatedly zooms in on the pegs of the violin, and you can almost feel the stresses being built up on the strings. This scene is repeated throughout the movie. I believe it is a metaphor for the stress being built up on Solomon, over not being able to see his loved ones.
Despite the brilliance of this film, it is not perfect. Steve Mcqueen (the director) shows a fascination for continuing to roll the camera in certain still shots, which I believe to be unnecessary because it draws away focus. But regardless, it is a movie I believe everyone should watch at least once in their lives.