Rarely do you come across a movie that gives you goose bumps, and leaves you silent and stunned, long after the credits have rolled. 12 Year a Slave, based on the true events of the 1853 memoir in the same name, is a striking tale of cruelty, survival and, above all else, freedom.
The film revolves around the true story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black violinist born free from slavery in the state of New York, who is abducted, shipped to the south and sold into slavery.
The performances in 12 Years a Slave are simply breathtaking. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has never really made an impression until now delivers an outstanding performance as Solomon Northup, a man who is fighting to survive and get back to his family. You can feel his heartbreak and fear just by his facial expressions.
Micheal Fassbender is fantastic as Edwynn Epps — a vicious and demonic plantation owner who is a menacing and malignant presence even when not on screen. His slaves’ fear of his seemingly random bouts of sadism is almost palpable.
Newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the tortured and sexually abused slave Patsey, is the star of the movie and almost outshines everyone else. The flair with which Nyong’o portrays Patsey’s agony, misery and anger is commendable and makes her character and performance the emotional epicenter of the film.
There are too many powerful scenes to count but the one that breaks your heart is when Solomon is nearly lynched by John Tibeats (Paul Dano) and is just hanging out there, while the other slaves are unable to do anything to help him. Then there is one which shows Patsey secured to a wooden post and being relentlessly whipped by Edwin Epps for fetching a bar of soap in order to rid herself of her own unbearable stench.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about 12 Years a Slave is the way it portrays slavery itself. Take Benedict Cumberbatch’s character — a seemingly decent and caring man who treats his slaves with some semblance of humanity — is still too afraid to break the vicious cycle of slavery.
The movie failed to adequately show the passage of time (except for the title, and the end of the movie where his children are shown to have grown up) and it seemed like the events only took place over a year as the narrative and the characters never really aged.
Solomon Northup’s story carries an undeniable and almost overbearing weight which grips your conscience and forces you to think how things got to this point.
The film is bound to strike a few raw nerves for the Pakistani audience as the oppression and mistreatment of workers is still somewhat prevalent in the country. So very often we read stories of young kids beaten to death by their employers for some small indiscretion … how is their story any different from Patsey’s or Solomon’s? When are we going to stop our own injustice?
Overall, the film is dark and raw; it exposes everything, without sugar coating it. 12 Years a Slave is definitely hard to watch but beautifully shot, scripted and edited and is an intense cinematic experience that provides heartache and empathy and realization that it is NOT ok to treat any human being like a perishable property, livestock or a tool – back then or today!
12 Years A Slave Oscar Trivia:
12 Years a Slave is nominated for 9 Oscars: Best Motion Picture of the Year; Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Chiwetel Ejiofor); Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Michael Fassbender); Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Lupita Nyong'o); Best Achievement in Costume Design; Best Achievement in Film Editing; Best Achievement in Production Design; Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay; Best Achievement in Directing (Steve McQueen)
Review originally published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 16, 2014.