In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
Year 2, Film #66
THE REVIEW: There’s just one day left until the 86th Academy Awards takes place and two more Best Picture nominees for me to see. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to see Nebraska for the show but I was able to catch a screening of 12 Years a Slave, one of the two big frontrunners this year (the other being Gravity). Given all the hype and praise this film has gotten over the past few months, my expectations were extremely high going into it and I’m happy to report that the film lives up to those expectations.
The film is based off the memoir of Solomon Northup who was born a free man in New York but kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years. It’s an incredible story and we see the immense amounts of pain and suffering mixed with dashes of hope. 12 Years a Slave is pretty much like any story you would expect about slavery: the conditions are cruel and inhumane and the white owners show no mercy in punishing the slaves for even the slightest error. Just this basic premise alone (and the fact that it’s well written and executed) is enough to make this a good film because there’s a certain impact it has. But what makes 12 Years a Slave so great is that Solomon starts as a free man. Most stories about slavery (or any other form of oppression or persecution for that matter) are stories of dreams. The slave wants to be free and we see all the hardships and agony they must go through to achieve that freedom they dream of. With Solomon’s story, he’s already been free so he knows what it’s like to not be a slave. He has lived in a society that was open and accepting and allowed him to live a normal life. So when he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery, his story — his journey — isn’t one of dreams but one of redemption, one of regaining what he once had.
As I briefly mentioned above though, a great story is always reliant on how well it’s executed. For 12 Years a Slave the execution was also extremely well done from Steve McQueen’s direction to the acting from the entire cast, specifically Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Solomon Northup. The acting is what really sells the sheer horror and abuse that Solomon went through for twelve years. Ejiofor exudes the strength of a man who know he is right and a man who is fighting for that right. More importantly though, he shows his weaknesses as well. As he says in the film, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” But there does come a point in the film where all he can do is survive and he needs to put all his energy into just getting to tomorrow so that maybe he can be free again and see his wife and kids. Ejiofor in particular does a brilliant job at showing this internal struggle and what exactly Solomon is going through as everything unfolds. He gives us an insight as to just how bad it would be if we were slaves and slavery still existed. And he also gives us an insight to the hope, however faint and distant, that one day he would be free again.
There are many more details about the film I could go into including some beautiful cinematography and wonderfully crafted long takes that draw out the tension in scenes and leave you on edge and uncomfortable for most of the film. What I’m going to focus on though is the film as a whole and why it does or does not deserve to win Best Picture. The answer to this isn’t that simple. Yes, 12 Years a Slave is easily one of the best films of the year and it absolutely deserves its nomination. Very few other films have the sheer emotional impact that 12 Years a Slave has along with such a gripping story and talented acting support it. And if I was going for the easy pick of Best Picture, this would be that choice. Compared with recent winners like The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and to a lesser extent The Hurt Locker, it fits the mold of what the Academy looks for in Best Picture. Comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and action genres (among others) are rarely recognized because the people voting tend towards the safe, tried-and-true drama film like 12 Years a Slave. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this because these films are often deserving of the recognition they get.
However, always going the safe and easy route doesn’t always yield the most entertaining and exciting results. Sometimes you have to take risks and sometimes they pay off, like they did with Gravity and Her. Gravity through a whole bunch of filmmaking standards out the window and did something completely different and never before seen. The result was the most intense 90 minutes of cinema I’ve ever experienced. Her was a fresh and unique look on the classic love story and incorporated many futuristic, yet realistic, elements that grounds the story in our everyday lives. The result here is one of the most heartfelt love stories ever told despite it being between a man and machine. 12 Years a Slave is a brilliant look at what slavery was in pre-Civil War America and the determination and resolve of the slaves facing such brutality and cruelty at the hands of their masters, and at times how that resolve falters. The result is a fantastic drama that draws us in for an experience that is very active, an experience that makes you cringe in your seat as you watch Solomon being whipped into submission. But 12 Years a Slave isn’t as bold or daring as Gravity or Her are. It is a film you should definitely watch and is one that will certainly stand out from others you see, but I don’t think it stands out that much.
THE RATING: 5 out of 5