In pre-Civil War America, neither legal documents or state lines could completely define the identity of a man, who regardless of lawfully deemed freedom was never guaranteed it.
Steve McQueen’s historical epic “12 Years a Slave” is based on the 1983 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man in New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The educated and revered violinist Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men”), is deceived by carnies and wakes up to find himself in shackles. Northup is stripped of his identity and passed from one plantation owner to the next.
“12 Years a Slave” has already reaped high acclaim after its premieres at various festivals, and is said to be the best and most emotionally intense film of the year. But before you start deeming it Oscar worthy, read on for 10 things you should know about the film before it opens in limited release this weekend.
1. It’s Incredibly Brutal
With Nortup’s first beating, where wooden planks and whips literally tear his shirt to bloody rags, McQueen immediately informs us that his film is going to be uncomfortably real and brutal. The director not only shows the many gruesome aspects of slavery, but he holds on to them long enough so that we must witness the full experience. From a stifling rape scene, shocking moments of unexpected violence, and an already infamous graphic whipping scene, the film has some of the heaviest and hardest-to-watch moments on screen in a while. Be prepared.
2. Ejiofor Gives the Performance of His Career
Ejiofor proved himself a noteworthy actor to watch with 2005’s “Serenity” and 2006’s “Children of Men,” yet his phenomenal performance in “12 Years” assures us that he knows his craft. The dehumanization of Northup is evinced in Ejiofor’s facial expressions alone, his glossy eyes revealing more about his internal and external degradation than words could tell. The confident, learned Solomon Northup, stripped of his identity, slowly descends into a petrified and humiliated man viewed as nothing more than a beast, as Paul Giamatti’s slave trader calls him. Yet unlike the other slaves, Northup maintains an unwavering conviction to survive no matter how much whips and words may break him down. From the tips of his toes that struggle to keep him alive in one long, unflinching scene to the quivers of his cheeks that restrain his hatred, every ounce of Ejiofor becomes Solomon Northup on the screen.
3. McQueen Brings the Perfect Balance of Realness
While there is a substantial amount of violence in the film, McQueen’s visceral approach is nonetheless artful and respectful of the history of slavery. He offers up a raw account of events without sensationalizing and dramatizing them, nor insulting the audience by diluting them. “12 Years” is clearly a film dedicated to honestly relating a real-life story, not one that manipulates audience’s emotions or one with an aim to strictly sell tickets. Each scene feels real enough to the point where we get it just enough.
4. Lupita Nyong’o Is an Actress to Watch
In her very first film role newcomer Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsy, the most hardworking and, unfortunately, most favored slave on Edwin Epp’s (Michael Fassbender) plantation. The sexual harassment and rape Patsy endures from the sickening Epps is undoubtedly awful, but nearly pales in comparison to the unending torture his jealous wife Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) puts her through. As Patsy, Nyong’o gives one of the most remarkable and heartbreaking performances of the year that will stay with you long after. It’s always refreshing to discover such talent in a new actor and we’re certain we’ll be seeing Nyong’o in many great roles to come.
5. It Effectively Uses Its Large Cast
While the other historical epic this year (“The Butler”) made a decent attempt with a large cast, it mainly used it as bait to enhance the story rather than to create strong characters. “12 Years a Slave,” however, utilizes its big-named cast to the perfect degree, where the audience isn’t left waiting for a famous actor to arrive on screen. While the film features small roles from Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Quvenzhane Wallis, Paul Dano, and Benedict Cumberbatch, the actors themselves never overshadow their characters but simply add to the richness of the story. The main standouts are Michael Fassbender’s malicious slave owner Epps, and Sarah Paulson who is an ideal fit as his wicked, vile wife.
6. It’s So Much More Than a Film
In the wrong hands “12 Years a Slave” could’ve easily become operatic and desperate, or inappropriately violent. Yet with McQueen’s background in art and his previous films “Hunger” and “Shame”, both of which portray the agony of the human condition in a visually beautiful, yet trialing manner, “12 Years” is so much more than a movie. McQueen’s slow tracking shots through the sugarcane fields, his unwavering scenes of cries and abuse, and his elongated gaze on the embers of burning paper dig out deeper emotions beyond the surface of the story.
7. Hans Zimmer’s Score Is a Bit Melodramatic
Zimmer’s style is known for its epic emotionalism, and while “12 Years” is an epic, the music feels slightly overwhelming and melodramatic. This may be because of its pairing with McQueen’s slow-paced, naturalistic style, which is very dissimilar to Zimmer’s usual films full of action and fast editing. The score may also feel slightly out of place due to its striking resemblance to Zimmer’s past compositions. The music that repeats throughout the film is very similar, if not the same, to both his “Time” composition from “Inception” and “Journey to the Line” from “The Thin Red Line” (give them a listen once you see the film). Perhaps less repetition of the same music and more periods of silence would’ve better suited the film’s moments of intensity.
8. It Depicts Slavery Unlike Other Films Before It
So far this year two films have examined racial tensions and politics in America, with “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler.” The latter briefly portrayed slavery rather softly and commercially, while just last year we got Tarantino’s signature twist on slavery in “Django Unchained.” It seems a fitting time though for a film to finally take a serious approach to one of the most horrific periods of dehumanization and suffering in American history. Unlike its predecessors, “12 Years” approaches pre-Civil War events with a mature respect without exploiting them for sympathy or blatant condemnation. While audiences of course have no first-hand experience of the slavery era to know how truly accurate the film is, McQueen’s film feels like the most authentic portrayal yet.
9. Yes, It Will Definitely Get a Ton of Nominations
We know all the early Oscar talk is annoying, but, with a film like “12 Years a Slave,” it’s incredibly difficult to avoid awards chatter since it so aptly succeeds on so many cinematic levels. From its brilliant cinematography — suffering truly never looked so gorgeous and harrowing — and its outstanding performances, to the all-consuming power of McQueens watchful, detailed eye, the film merits many praises.
10. While Historical, It Feels Very Relevant
It’s not uncommon for a period piece or a historical epic to get bogged down in the cobwebs of antiquity, feeling more like an educational lesson that is wholly separate from us today. However, McQueen’s film isn’t one that is easy to brush off as merely something that happened, as it leaves a lasting impression of something that still impacts us. “12 Years” isn’t a preachy sermon on morality and race issues, it doesn’t summarize history like “The Butler,” and it doesn’t just tell the story of one man. It encapsulates the birth of an evil and a widespread persecution which created waves that have echoed throughout history into the present. McQueen’s film is so powerful and consuming that you feel like you’re right there with Northup, yet when the credits roll you can’t help but feel the rippling effects such an era of agony has had on race in America and still does today.
This article was originally featured on Moviefone on October 17, 2013.