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‘12 Years a Slave’ creates Oscar buzz as audiences take a close look at American slavery and injustice

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By Thomas Kika
Contributing Writer
[email protected]

Steve McQueen’s new film “12 Years a Slave”
is a high-point in capturing the reality of a black
slave’s hard life, while the brutal, soul-wrenching,
and painful story makes the film one of the best
performances of the year.
“12 Years a Slave” is an adaption of Solomon
Northup’s famous autobiography of the same
name. Northup was a free man living in uptate
New Work, specifically Saratoga Springs, with
his family. In 1841, he was tricked by men offering
him work in Washington, D.C., and sold into
Despite his protests and claims to freedom,
Northup remained enslaved for twelve years in
Louisiana, before eventually being saved and
returned home in 1853. His story remains one the
few firsthand accounts of American slavery ever
The story is heartbreaking to imagine from just
the simple synopsis, and seeing it play out on
screen is nothing short of agonizing. The audience
is spared none of the gory, wretched details of the
era and its cruelties, as scene after scene unfolds
with unrelenting bluntness and clarity.
Northup’s journey plays out in a descent, going
deeper into the darkness and evil of slavery with
every step. Initially, he is bought by William Ford
(Benedict Cumberbatch), the closest thing to a
kind and merciful a man, who buys and commands
human beings like cattle, can likely ever be.
Eventually, violent conflicts with Ford’s hottempered
slave overseer (Paul Dano) lead Northup
to be sold once again, this time to Edwin Epps
(Michael Fassbender), the ultimate version of the
sadistic plantation owner.
Along the way, Northup grapples with his desire
to retain the identity he once had, and the need to
suppress that identity if he is to have any chance
of survival.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is a stunning
Solomon Northup. Ejiofor is a performer who
has been bubbling just beneath the surface of
mainstream for a while, showing up in films like
“2012,” and Joss Whedon’s “Serenity.”
Ejiofor finally exploded onto the scene as a powerful
leading man, embodying a man who simultaneously
is dignified, disheveled, distinguished, and
His greatest
asset as a
performer is
his extremely
emotive face.
Ejiofor is able
to communicate
despair and turmoil
with only
his sympathetic
eyes, and the
subtle trembles
and twitches on
his face.
Director Steve
McQueen calls
for the character
to go to
many dark and
dirty places, and
Ejiofor met him at every step.
Of course, a leading man is little without capable
supporting players, and “12 Years a Slave” has
them in spades. Powerhouse talents Paul Giamatti
and Benedict Cumberbatch are on point with effective
performances, but ones that are ultimately
sober next to the real stand-outs.
Paul Dano, Hollywood’s go-to man-boy firecracker,
gives a stirring performance as a vindictive
overseer, Tibeats, that Northup encounters
early on.
But Dano is merely the warm-up for Michael
Fassbender, who is without a doubt among the
finest actors in the business, with his portrayal of
Edwin Epps, Northup’s final owner, a staggering
Epps is a monster: violent, lustful, irrational,
prone to explosive drunken outbursts, and in a
few strokes, really short of pathetic. He’s certainly
despicable like a few cinematic characters
in recent memory, but the film wisely makes him
quite pitiable, with tendencies towards indulgence
and foolishness.
In lesser hands, this character might have come
off as cartoonish, but Fassbender is able to make
Epps feel completely real, a feat which only makes
him more horrifying.
But even in great films, there is always the
weakest link. As the character Bass, Brad Pitt
gives a bewilderingly clunky performance.
Pitt is credited as a producer on the film, and his
production company, Plan B, had a major influence
in getting the film made.
One might hope that a film as intelligent as this
one would be able to avoid a pitfall like that, but
sadly, once Pitt shows up, a film that had previously
allowed the horrors of slavery to speak for
themselves, suddenly has a notorious movie star
delivering an on-the-nose proclamation of said
horrors, as if the audience hasn’t yet grasped the
point yet.
Coupled with Pitt’s shaky attempt at a regional
accent, the performance feels out-of-place in such
an otherwise impeccable film. The minor damage
is mitigated as the character’s overall purpose on
the story becomes clear, but it still can’t help but
stick out.
In one scene, Epps observed that Bass “likes to
hear himself talk.” Perhaps he was actually talking
about Pitt himself.
In terms of size and scope, British director Steve
McQueen’s achieved his largest endeavor yet, and
it bodes well for his future as a filmmaker.
McQueen has become known in recent years for
his smaller, artistically-minded character dramas,
like Shame and Hunger (both of which, by the
way, star Michael Fassbender; there’s a creative
friendship for the ages), and he brings his wonderful
artist’s eye to “12 Years.” Every shot of the
film is beautifully realized, rich with details for
film buffs to sink their teeth into.
McQueen’s directorial style is marked by a distinct
lack of content restrictions. He is not hesitant
about nudity, and frequently makes use of it, from
both genders, to show the dehumanization of the
It would be unthinkable for any filmmaker to
shy away from violence when their subject is slavery,
but even still, McQueen’s depictions manage
to cut deep. He frequently employs long shots,
and avoids the modern trend of handheld cameras,
giving his scenes a level of clarity that deprives
the audience of any reprieve from the cruelty
But even though it’s anything but pleasant, and
can be quite difficult to bear in some stretches, it is
the film of the ages and everyone should see it and
grab a piece of history.

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