Last week, I tried to treat myself to a viewing of this year’s Best Picture winner 12 Years A Slave, but Redbox was mysteriously sold out (seriously, how many people are renting a hard-hitting drama about slavery on a Tuesday night?) and I was forced to suffer through Anchorman 2 instead. But, thankfully, the Redbox gods granted my wish this week, and 12 Years A Slave was mine (and I didn’t have to watch Grudge Match!). And I was not disappointed! While it might not be material to brighten up your week, 12 Years A Slave is simply a fantastic film.
Based on the 1853 memoir, the film follows Solomon Northup, a free man residing with his family in New York who is tricked and kidnapped into slavery (actually a very common practice). Northup is forced to suffer through 12 years of slavery, being passed from plantation to plantation and surviving many horrors in the process.
So, no, this isn’t exactly light fare. This is no Django Unchained; though it keeps the squirm-inducing violence, it ditches the humorous undertones and the bloody, cathartic payoff. Director Steve McQueen’s goal here is to make the viewer uncomfortable, giving us a grounded, realistic portrayal of the disgusting acts of the days of slavery.
And boy, does it work. It is hard to watch and completely unrelenting. It’s even exhausting at times watching misfortune after misfortune play out on screen. But that’s what gives the film such power; if you watch the entire film without feeling any sort of emotion, I’m slightly worried about your well-being.
The story alone would make for a relentless, powerful portrayal of slavery, but the acting and direction are what push the film towards near-perfection. 12 Years a Slave is a treasure trove for A-level acting. Not only does it have extreme talent in the supporting roles of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and Paul Giamitti, the three actors in the largest roles (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o) are all pitch-perfect. I’m not too familiar with Ejiofor’s work, but this has me wishing for more. Fassbender has proven again and again he’s amazing, but perhaps most impressive is Nyong’o, playing the slave “Patsey,” who has more misfortune forced onto her than any other character. Nyong’o’s performance stands out as the most devastating part of the film.
Director Steve McQueen struck minor gold with Hunger and Shame, but 12 Years A Slave is his most important film yet. He does away with most of the overt art-house flair of his two previous films here, but still keeps enough to make the film look fantastic. He’s a fan of the lingering long shot, showcased here in two unflinching flagship sequences. Sometimes his direction borders on being too distracting but thankfully, it never truly gets to that point.
I probably don’t have anything new to say about 12 Years A Slave as critics have been gushing about it since its premiere, so I’ll just say you should see it. Not only is it a fantastic film, it’s an important one as well, giving us the most pointed, stinging portrayal of slavery since Roots in the ’70s. Now I’ve seen eight of the nine nominees for the most recent Best Picture race, and this is the clear, deserved winner. I’d also venture to say it’s the best Best Picture winner of the 2010s thus far. Watch it already.
(One last note: it’s a little funny that the film’s producer Brad Pitt plays the only white man in the film against slavery. Strikes me as a little self-righteous there, Brad.)