12 Years a Slave (2013)
Directed by Steve McQueen
I always take notice when a film has the power to draw audible reactions of shock or grief from unsuspecting movie theater crowds. “12 Years a Slave,” director Steve McQueen’s artistic take on freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northrup, has that rare power. It had been over a year, seeing 2012’s “Les Miserables,” since I had heard the sounds of moviegoers crying at the end of a film. It’s a sound from sore eyes.
While Solomon Northrup’s 1853 slave narrative is the perfect material for a period drama, I don’t know if “12 Years a Slave” deserves its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. I’ve seen historical accounts handled with more care and precision. I also wasn’t a fan of McQueen’s direction, also nominated. I wish it was slightly less artsy, without the irrelevant (albeit beautiful) landscape shots of the American South, and the long scenes of Northrup (played by Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor) standing in a field staring at nothing in particular off in the distance. It’s perfect for Best Picture – easy to enjoy, but easier to respect – but it’s not the movie you watch over and over again.
What “12 Years a Slave” does deserve, without question, is every acting nomination it could possibly receive. Ejiofor is far-and-away the deserving front-runner in the Best Actor race, with an unforgettable performance worthy of mention for years to come. His screen presence is undeniable; he takes hold and doesn’t let go. But rarely do you see a performance as incredible as his nearly equaled by his supporting actors. Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender is the antagonistic slave-owner Epps. Whether his character is sober or drunk (and there’s about equal screen-time for both), Fassbender shows audiences why this isn’t his first Oscar nomination. He’s the master…of acting. He’s phenomenal. This is me sharing my sincere hope that Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t just a fad; that he’s not saturating into everything we watch (from critically-acclaimed films like this to summer blockbusters like “Star Trek: Into Darkness”) so quickly that soon we’ll tire of him. I hope to see him in years’ best films for decades to come. As Ford, Solomon’s kindly first owner, Cumberbatch is perfect. Paul Dano, who plays Ford’s carpenter and slave-driver, reached a new level of creepy in last year’s “Prisoners.” But as the wicked Tibbeats, we’ve never hated him more for being so good at being so bad. He’s vastly underrated, though he’s one of Hollywood’s finest young character actors. In minor roles, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt are invaluable additions to the cast. And we can’t forget about the ladies! Lupita Nyong’o stole the screen as Patsey, the talented, abused slave of Epps. As an audience, we felt her pain as she took the whip. She convinced us that it was her feeling every strike on her bare back. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” did a marvelous job of making American slavery real for audiences, but nothing can compare to how we feel at the end of “12 Years a Slave.” 2013 was full of tremendous ensemble casts – “The Butler,” “American Hustle” – but it’s been a while since I’ve seen such skilled acting in so many key roles as there are in “12 Years a Slave.”
Slave songs serve as the soundtrack for the film. Every inch of the screen, the foreground and the background, is used in a flawless display of cinematography. Costume and production design (both Oscar-nominated) let the audience soak into the antebellum atmosphere. You feel the sweat collect on your forehead. Every little thing brings the slave experience to life in a tragic way.
“12 Years a Slave” reminds us that great acting can take a great film and make it simply extraordinary. While it may not have been my favorite movie of 2013, it is definitely on the shortlist of the year’s best. Best Picture, here it comes.