In 1853, Solomon Northup wrote an autobiography called 12 Years a Slave, 160 years later it has been turned into a film with the same name, and is one of the best films of the year.
Directed by British Director Steve McQueen (Shame), 12 Years a Slave tells Northrup's true story of his 1841 kidnapping in Washington D.C.from which he was sold into slavery at a time when blacks in the United States were commonly and legally treated as slaves. Chiwitel Ejiofor plays Northrup, a skilled carpenter and a free black family man with two children living in upstate New York.
One evening he meets two men, they start drinking, one of them drugs his drink, and then he wakes up and realizes he is going to be sold into slavery. He protests, telling all around him that he is a free man, but unfortunately his papers are at his home, and no one believes him. Thus begins his time as a slave for 12 years, which would see him being shipped to Louisiana, going from one owner to another, and from one who is kind to one who is brutal. What he has to endure in these 12 years is enough to break any man down, but Northrup doesn't give up.
Northrup is initially 'bought' by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a well-meaning but clueless plantation owner. But then things get worse. He is sold to the brutal and cruel Edwin Epps (an excellent Michael Fassbender, who is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor) and his passive wife (Sarah Paulson). Epps is aggressive with his slaves, literally treats them like dirt, and punishes them when he is in a bad mood. In one brutal scene, Northrup is hung from a tree as punishment for fighting an overseer, with his feet barely touching the ground, enough to allow him not to hang himself, and he hangs there from morning to dusk, while the other slaves around him go about their work, and children play in the background. The look on Ejiofor's Northrup conveys the image of a man who has given up hope to escape, and who is now focused merely on survival.
In another brutal scene that is possibly one of the most harrowing film scenes in recent memory (and one that will make you turn away), Epps punishes slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, sure to receive the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in this movie), who had only briefly disappeared from the plantation to get a bar of soap. Egged on by his wife who knows that Ebbs has been sleeping with (read: raping) her, Ebbs orders Northrup to lash Patsey as hard as he can, Northrup can only manage a few strokes when Ebbs takes over and savagely lashes her. It is a scene that was shot in real time, and lasts only a few minutes, but feels much longer. Ebbs is in love with her, but doesn't understand how he can be in love with a slave, so he tries to destroy her.
Brad Pitt, who is also a producer, shows up toward the end of the film. He has cast himself as Northrup's savior, a Canadian labourer who listens to his story and promises he will attempt to help him. Brad Pitt, while in a small role, is Brad Pitt, and is a bit distracting when he all of a sudden appears.
Ejiofor, a British film, television and theatre actor, has either won or is nominated for Best Actor for his work in this film by more than 40 critics organizations. He's been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, and won Best Actor by organizations such as the Boston Society of Film Critics to the Women Film Critics Circle Award. Ejiofor, previously seen in American Gangster, 2012 and Salt, outacts his fellow black actors from this season's films: Forest Whitaker of The Butler, and Idris Elba of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Fassbender, and especially Nyong'o, deserve every award they will receive. 12 Years a Slave has just been nominated for 11 BAFTAs, including nominations for Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o.
The stories of these slaves being beaten, raped, and tortured are told by McQueen's detailed and controlled direction. How did McQueen find this story to tell? His wife is a historian, and she recommended that he look into true accounts of slavery, she then found this book, and he said that he had to do it.
"There were sequences that were technical, there were sequences obviously that were emotional, but in a way there was, just, the level, the focus of the film for me was on Solomon Northrup, trying to connect as much as I could to his journey, his character. Part of that which was in his biography, and so was a lot of clues there to very specific characteristics. In some of the things that he endured you know I was able to then to sort of try to connect in any way that I could to how he may have felt, and that was a real privilege in a way. To feel a sense of any kind of connection to what he went through we were trying to do some of the sequences as close as we possibly do to what he describes in the book. So that felt in a way emotional, also, and it connected to his experience connected to him" McQueen said at the film's press conference. 12 Years as a Slave is a film where each performance is excellent, every scene has impact, and is emotional from the beginning to the very end.
McQueen went on to add that he feels his film is a "world story" and not necessarily an American story as such. "It's a world story because it's about slavery, slavery was a world issue as such. I chose to adapt this story before researching those stories at that time and this is the story that struck me...Solomon Northrup's story." He added "I couldn't really have come across this story or book before. I couldn't believe it, I felt very stupid but then I realized that no one else had."
How did Ejiofor feel about taking on such a character as Northrup? " I just felt that if I kept close to Solomon, and told his story, that I kind of trusted in the narrative, of course I trusted in Steve, you know, and I felt that that was the way that people could connect to it."
Ejiofor recently told Vanity Fair Magazine that "I remember it (the book) and being amazed by the story, and also realizing that it was quite daunting to step into something like that." Yes, the film is quite daunting, but it is all the more daunting when you remember that this is the true life story of a man who lost 12 years of his life, and being away for 12 years from his family and home.