There is not a movie in recent memory as uncomfortable to watch as 12 Years a Slave, but there are also not many as powerful. Director Steve McQueen does a masterful job showing this heartbreaking true story of Soloman Northup and unabashedly presents the harsh realities of what it is to be a slave.
Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers an unforgettable performance as Soloman, a free African American, who is deceived, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. The slow transformation of Soloman from unwilling prisoner to obedient slave is remarkable, but through this transformation, he never loses his soul and what it is to live. He is passed along to numerous slave owners and learns what it is like to have your freedom and, most importantly, your humanity and dignity taken away from you. Ejiofor’s presence on screen is one of suffering. His face reads of someone in despair, but inside he is strong, which is one of the eventual reasons he is able to prevail through this ordeal.
There is a swift devastation that enhances the horror of 12 Years a Slave and adds to its realism. Tragedy happens in the blink of an eye. Each turn is waited on baited breath. One moment, things may be fine, but you do not know what that next moment brings and sometimes the truly horrible is waiting around the corner, which we see time and time again in this film.
12 Years a Slave is the story of Soloman Northup, but what sets this film above most slave depictions is how it handles society and the slave owners. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Ford, an honest and fair slave owner; one who understands the times and understands humanity. His portrayal comes as a shock at first, as you expect him to be tyrannical and brutal, like slave owners are usually depicted. Instead, he is seen listening to Soloman’s ideas and shaking his hand. But compare Ford to Michael Fassbender’s Epps and you see the difference in humanity. Fassbender ‘s performance is brilliant – horrifically and despicably brilliant – but one that will most likely see him get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He takes you to a place you do not want to see. One so dark and full of terror, it is hard to understand how a human being can act so egregiously to a fellow “human being.”
This dichotomy of character can be attributed to the beautiful writing of John Ridley, who is able to capture so many nuanced emotions and McQueen brings out these emotions with grace and precision and makes the emotion feel so real that, at times, you want to turn away, which is only a commendable compliment to the directing of McQueen.
All in all, 12 Years a Slave is a powerful and emotional juggernaut, one that is wrought with fear and tension. Steve McQueen squeezes out every ounce of emotion from Ejiofor, who is a lock for an Oscar nomination, and is able to tell this tragic story with the ease of a refined director. It will bring you to tears, and uplift your soul. And after you see it, you will never forget it.