Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley (based on true story of Solomon Northup)
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano
Movies rarely ever deliver clear messages. Most pile themselves with several topics but end up being confused as to what they should say about them. Others are immediately forgotten since they aren’t bothered to present topics in the first place.
One may argue that if a movie doesn’t have a topic, it could be seen as mindless entertainment. But if a film is as lazy as a couch-hog who spends their time sleeping all day, is there a reason to even watch it? Like a food appetizer, entertainment satisfies yet in essence it can only do so much for the average movie-goer. If a film has a deeper meaning than just serving as time pass, it ends up staying with you throughout your life.
I’ve seen many films of such type this year, however, none have impacted me as emotionally as Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”. A mesmerizingly powerful movie that conjures, demands, and pleads us to awaken our mind and spirits to the subject of slavery, it casts a everlasting spell on you through it’s themes. A haunting message of hope, patience and determination is projected, making one contemplate the meaning behind life itself. Given the subject matter, the film is gruesome and hard to stomach. Yet just how often do you come across a movie that’s eager to communicate rather than solely entertain?
To be honest, unfortunately it is almost ever. Movies are passage-ways that allow people to take a once-in-a-while break from their lives. From predictable romantic-comedies to mindless action films, they cater towards our expectations, but in doing so, often leave our throats thirsty for surprises. “12 Years a Slave” challenges those conventions, and reminds us that movie-going can mean so much more than just looking for a time-pass. It is an extraordinary piece of art- a motion picture that takes away your breath, enlightens the senses with respectful acknowledgement of an important historical event and touches the deepest corridors of the human soul.
Set in the slavery era, the epic brings to life the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejoifor), a free black man who is abruptly separated from his family, and sold into slavery in the year 1841.
The journey that he embarks on rattles the bone, chills the spine and breaks the heart. But if I were to summarize it, I’d be doing a great disservice for a film that demands to be experienced personally, not knowingly. Intimately drawing a definitive portrait of slavery that has never been ventured into before, “12 Years a Slave” is a masterclass in direction, writing and performances.
Of this day and age, hardly any filmmakers have the guts and ambitions to tackle what British auteur Steve McQueen has created. Slavery is a subject that has largely been ignored in Cinema. Admittedly, a few movies have captured the topic, yet of the ones that have, which can you truly remember? This is the question that haunted me while watching “12 Years a Slave”, and Steve McQueen provided an answer for it. Here is a rare finding: a fearless director that dreams his own vision, striving to break boundaries in each frame of a film.
What distinguishes his guidance from other filmmakers is that he aims to create rich realism on screen. Any filmmaker has the same job: to transport you into the world inhabited by characters both visually and aesthetically. McQueen’s unique style as a director is that he makes you feel the troubles that the characters are going through, through a taste of realism.
His vision cuts through the skin like a razor-sharp knife and shines as bright as a diamond. The cinematography is a breathtaking marvel to behold; atmospherically sweeping you of your feet into the skins of hopeless slaves. From long shots capturing beautiful landscapes of Southern America to tight close-ups on the bewildered faces of the slaves themselves, the cinematography grabs hold of your attention and refuses to let go. This is quite a remarkable feat when you consider that slavery is a topic that normally makes one look away from the screen.
When you’re not gaping in awe at the stunning direction, you’re enlightened by the multi-layered, thoughtful script. The writing, magically soulful and involving, sincerely fleshes out the characters so each of them are relatable and fascinating in distinguishing ways of their own. It is jaw-dropping how the screenwriters manage to find soul in hateful characters we wouldn’t expect to care for, let alone sympathize with. Instead of resorting towards unfair stereotypes, they make us consider the struggles faced both by the slaves as well as their despicable owners in the harsh time period of slavery.
Steve McQueen’s towering achievement as a director is that he doesn’t label these people as simply good or evil. Brutally honest, instead he reveals the darkest depths of their personalities, making us contemplate over their complexity and allowing us to come up with our own interpretations over whether they are moral or immoral. This makes the characters extremely intriguing to watch, and the film exciting to witness.
In terms of acting, it is hard not to be dazzled by the stars that are at the top of their games.
Michael Fassbender delivers an incredible performance as Epps, one that won’t be forgotten in the years to come. Cringe-worthy intense, with an intimidating presence that simply sends shivers down your spine, he commands the screen like a fearless lion. Watching him tear people apart both physically and mentally, reminded me of Ralph Fiennes’ breakthrough role in “Schindler’s List”. Like Fiennes, Fassbender is so alluringly hypnotic in his ruthless behavior that whenever he shows up you simply can’t take your eyes off the screen.
Amidst the star-studded supporting cast, there are many actors who make memorable impressions but perhaps the most unexpected is Lupita Nyong’o. As a hard-working slave who is determined to keep fighting for her freedom and hope in troubled times, Nyong’o is simply unforgettable. I find it surprising how this mere newcomer actress to Hollywood, with little to no experience, manages to stand out amongst the most popular of stars such as Brad Pitt. Through her heartbreaking perspective, we are enlightened with the struggles faced upon women in the slavery business.
Last but not least is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film’s impeccable lead star. From what I can recall, I’ve never seen a performance this mesmerizing in my life. In the role of Solomon Northup, a courageous man who puts us on a lesson-filled journey through life, Ejiofor made me experience a whirlwind circle of emotions that I hardly ever come across when watching movies. A man of few words, what’s most astonishing is how he evokes feelings purely through his facial expressions.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Hans Zimmer’s music, and with “12 Years a Slave”, he simply outdoes himself. Many have criticized the chord progression of his music, deeming it as too familiar, but I wholly disagree. Subtle, melodic and deeply affecting, it awakens goosebumps on my skin whenever I listen to it.
As I previously mentioned, this film isn’t meant for everyone. It is dark and heavy, brutal in it’s portrayal of violence and often uncomfortable to digest. But is violence the center of attention? Definitely not. I feel that director Steve McQueen has leapt beyond the boundaries of filmmaking to create a quiet observation of human behavior, one that makes you reflect not only the horrors of slavery but life itself.
If you look deeper into the movie, an important lesson is to be learnt: life is a road full of rough bumps and indecisive intersections, yet no matter how dreadful the times, it is always best not to give up hope. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “only in the darkness can you see the stars.”