"I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!"
Steve McQueen is a brilliant filmmaker who makes movies that are sometimes difficult to watch, but at the same time are powerful and engaging. His characters usually are troubled souls who experience some sort of physical, psychological, or emotional torture. They are slaves of their circumstances, and no character literally captures these elements as well as Ejiofor's Solomon Northup as he is chained and sold into slavery. Some people claim that films about slavery and the Holocaust are overdone and exploitive, but I disagree, if made right they can be powerful and sensitive like was the case with 12 Years a Slave. The same people that make these claims are the ones that don't mind going to see five or six superhero or vampire films a year. There are good superhero movies and terrible ones, and it's the same thing with films dealing with these dark historic moments. This film isn't just a movie about slavery, it's a movie focusing on Solomon's story, it's a character study focused on an exceptional man who is determined not to lose hope or fall into despair. I'd even go as far as saying that more than a film about slavery, this is a dramatic and thrilling movie about the lack of human compassion. There are several villains in this film and they aren't only the slave masters, we see several scenes were even slaves turned their backs on each other, and that lack of compassion is what truly captured the essence of this film.
This beautiful screenplay adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northup's autobiographical book, Twelve Years a Slave, tells the story of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man and New York citizen who was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and forced to work in several New Orleans plantations during the mid 1800's. This is where Solomon's fight for survival begins as he is determined to regain his freedom and return to his wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott) and two children. Once Solomon is sent to New Orleans he is sold by Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to a wealthy slave owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford is a kind Christian, but ultimately he really wants to look out for himself and when Solomon has trouble with one of the overseers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), he sells him to a ruthless slave owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender). This is where Solomon's soul is really put to the test as Epps cruelty is unbearable. However, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) suffers the most from her Master's cruelty as she is raped and despised by Epp's Mistress (Sarah Paulson). We follow Solomon through these tormented 12 years as he experiences all sorts of horrors until he finally finds a compassionate heart.
This superb film benefits from a powerful lead performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor who deserves all the awards he's been receiving. His facial expressions and agony transcend the screen and break our hearts. The same could be said from the supporting performances from Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays the more complex character and probably the only one that isn't either white or black morally), and Michael Fassbender who is the personification of cruelty. Fassbender, who was also brilliant in McQueen's two previous films, plays one of the most despicable characters in recent film history. McQueen's direction is outstanding and several of his scenes were beautifully shot while at the same time very disturbing. His trademark long takes stand out in this film. The whipping scene is horrifying and the long shot where he is tortured and left hanging while we see everyone else going on with their normal lives is a testament of the central theme of this film which had to do with the lack of human compassion and mercy. This is one of the best films of the year and completely deserves all the hype it's been receiving.