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Unflinching and honest, ‘12 Years A Slave’ leaves an impression

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I hesitate to call “12 Years a Slave” a groundbreaking film, because in 2013 the choice to center a film about slavery on the experiences of black people should not be a groundbreaking one. But “12 Years” did just that, and it felt like the most honest and human portrayal of slavery I have ever seen on the big screen.

“12 Years” succeeds where other films have failed precisely because of this choice. Too often films about slavery and civil rights (“Lincoln”, “Amistad”, “Glory”, “The Help”) focus on a single white person who has rejected the status quo and begun to question oppression, essentially using the theatre as a megaphone to shout “see? We’re not all bad!”. This trend that is as frustrating as it is limiting, and “12 Years” takes a step towards setting it right.

“12 Years” is an adaptation of a popular memoir of the same name published in 1853 by Solomon Northup. Northup, a free black man, lives comfortably in Saratoga, New York with his wife and children and earns a living as a violinist. When he takes a short job with a travelling circus in Washington D.C., he is drugged and smuggled South. Without papers to prove that he is a free man, Northup is quickly sold to a plantation owner.

Director Steve McQueen (“Hunger”, “Shame”) deftly controls the story, repeatedly forcing the audience to confront the violence inflicted on the film’s protagonists. When Solomon first wakes up in captivity, he tries to assert his status as a free man. When he rejects the new identity given to him (“You’re not a free man,” says his captor, “You’re nothing but a Georgia runaway.”) he is viciously beaten. Later, Solomon fights back against an abusive overseer and is almost lynched for it. He is narrowly saved — because his master has not yet recouped the money spent on him — and instead made to hang for hours in the noose that was meant to kill him. The scene is agonizingly shot, with McQueen refusing to cut away from Solomon struggling to survive as his toes barely scrape the ground beneath him. Solomon precariously clings to life as the day’s routine continues around him, his fellow slaves unable to intervene.

The suffering depicted in the film is not always explicitly violent. An early scene in which Solomon is taken with others to be exhibited and bid on by slave buyers is horrifying in its heartlessness. The slaves are stripped down, lined up, and made to remain silent as their bodies are inspected and assigned monetary values.  The slave buyers are calculating, separating families when it is most profitable. There is no blood or beatings, but when a slave mistress insists that a “warm meal and good rest” will erase the memory of lost children from a slave’s mind, it cuts deep. A similar air of casual cruelty runs through the scenes at the hellish Epps plantation.  Slaves are forced from bed in the middle of the night to participate in “dances,” and the joy Master Epps seems to get from watching his victims wearily perform is nothing short of perverse.

The quiet violence that permeates the lives of slaves centers the narrative of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young slave who is the subject of her master’s violent obsession and mistress’s jealous abuse. Like Solomon and the other slaves, she is beaten, but Patsey is also fetishized by her master, who waxes poetic about how she was made for him by God. One night Patsey bribes and eventually begs Solomon to murder her, speaking of death in a reverent tone. The scene is heartbreaking, and made even more so when one remembers that unlike Solomon, Patsey has no hope of rescue from the plantation. Subject to daily abuse and rape, Patsey attempts to exert her agency and use her only free day to procure a bar of soap from a sympathetic neighbor. Because this small act of independence makes her unavailable to Master Epps’ whims for just a few hours, Patsey is brutally beaten and Solomon, as an accomplice, is forced to administer the lashes.

It would be easy for a film as heavy as “12 Years” to stumble under its own weight, but it is anchored by a knockout ensemble. Michael Fassbender has garnered significant (and deserved) praise for his turn as Edwin Epps. His performance is terrifying, if lacking much nuance (he’s more wolf than man). Sarah Paulson is equally impressive as his wife, and Paul Dano is perfectly despicable as Tibeats, an insecure and abusive overseer. But of course, “12 Years” is not without missteps.  Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist (Pitt is also a producer of the film) seems entirely out of place when he appears in the third act. The man he plays was real and instrumental in helping Northup return to his family, but Pitt’s casting seems self-congratulatory and uninspired.  The performances of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon stand out among the already exceptional cast.  Nyong’o’s Patsey is simultaneously childlike and weary, and carries weight on her shoulders like no one else. Ejiofor is astounding, lending both power and nuance to the role. He masters the occasionally overwrought dialogue and shines in moments of silence. Even in long, silent close-ups, Ejiofor is riveting.

A powerful testimony to white erasure of black humanity, “12 Years A Slave” is by no means an easy film to watch, but you would be doing yourself a disservice if you miss it.

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