12 Years A Slave has no interest in audience hand holding. The film opens with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) already deep into his tenure of slavery. He works cotton fields during the day while attempting to write letters out of berry juice at night. The film then begins its extended flashback to the origin of Northup’s imprisonment.
In telling the horror show of slavery, 12 Years doesn’t flinch. Families torn apart, slaves whipped and women raped; the scenes are there, but the brutality of what you witness remains hours, days after you leave the theater.
Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) lingers on many of these scenes that a lesser director would cut. The long take, more than any other film in recent memory, was used to its full capability. One scene in particular shows the slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) tied to a post and whipped for walking to a neighboring plantation for soap. The camera focuses on Patsy’s face as her attacker whips her from behind. With each lash, Patsy screams in agony, and blood mists in the air. The scene is almost five minutes long.
Refreshingly, the aftermath of violence is given equal attention. In several scenes after a slave is whipped, audiences see the bloody lesion. The woman sitting next to me in the theater gasped but didn’t look away. None of us could.
Although not the most dynamic character in the film, Ejiofor’s performance of Northup is proud and relentless. Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberpatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender all play part of the slave-owning elite with each having their own spot on the unrepentant bastard scale. However, Fassbender takes the prize.
Admittedly, Fassbender is my favorite working actor right now, but his role as Edwin Epps may be his finest to date. Epps is a monster of a man. He beats, rapes and quotes scripture while he does it. He’s a drunk, racist, sexist, irredeemable pig, but nevertheless a fully rounded character that the audience understands. He may be the perfect movie villain.
12 Years A Slave is genius. It’s certainly not a fun film given the subject matter, but it’s important and pushes the boundaries of where film and storytelling should be.