Sunday, October 27, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave is the true story of Northup’s life where he was a free black man living in the North until he is kidnapped in Washington, D.C. where he is sold as a slave as he endures hardships for 12 years. Directed by Steve McQueen and screenplay by John Ridley, the film is an exploration into a man who endures the worst kind of cruelty towards humanity as he deals with the world of slavery as Northup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Also starring Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael K. Williams, Scott McNairy, and Brad Pitt. 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing yet visceral film from Steve McQueen.

The film is this simple story about a man named Solomon Northup who lived a decent life in Saratoga, New York in 1841 where he is asked by two men to play for a show in Washington, D.C. where he accepts the offer until he wakes up in chains as he’s sold to slavery where he endures cruelty under different masters for 12 years. It’s a film that explores a man who had this very good life in the North where he finds himself in a world that is very different in the South where blacks are treated as a form of property by their masters. The 12-year journey that Northup encounters where he’s called Platt, he doesn’t just see the cruelty of slavery but also how dangerous he is as he’s a man that is educated where slaves tell him to keep his head down and just do your work so there won’t be anymore trouble. Still, he just couldn’t comprehend the atrocities that he sees and endures in the 12 years of being a slave.

John Ridley’s screenplay definitely explores the 12 years of Northup’s life where its first scene is Northup as a slave cutting down sugar canes for another master as he then reflects on the life he had. Much of the film’s first half showcases bits of Northup’s life as a free man while revealing how he had been tricked by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) into doing a show for them where he wakes up the next morning in chains. Ridley’s script is largely told from Northup’s perspective as he watches the world he’s in as he has to see a woman named Eliza (Adepero Oduye) be separated from her children as they’re also sold to slavery. Northup’s encounter with slavery has him endure the supervision of different masters where the first is this Baptist preacher in William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is much kinder to his slave though he’s unaware of the cruelty that his slave overseer in John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who always undermine things and treats Northup with disdain.

While Northup would also work briefly under the supervision of Judge Turner (Bryan Batt) during a seasonal break, Northup would endure the worst under Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is this very unique individual whom Ford describes as a man who is willing to break slaves to the core as he has a very sick fascination with the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) whom he seduces much to the chagrin of his wife (Sarah Paulson) who loathes Patsey. It all plays to Northup dealing with Epps as well as the harsh conditions he endure as a slave picking cotton where if he picked less than the day before. He will get whipped as it’s just one of the many punishments he has to deal with yet clings to some sense of hope as he desperately tries to write a letter to his family and friends in the North but the presence of Epps has him feel uneasy. The film’s third act doesn’t just play into Northup’s sense of hopelessness but also the things he has to do where he does find some hope in a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) who learns about Northup’s situation as he would be a key proponent into Northup getting his freedom.

Steve McQueen’s direction is very evocative in the way he presents a world that is beautiful but has this air of ugliness that is prominent throughout for the fact that it’s a film about slavery. A lot of McQueen’s direction is filled with these intoxicating images that mixes beauty and horror while knowing how to put an actor in a frame or to use a close-up to express something by doing very little. Shot on location in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, McQueen’s portrait of the American South is very seductive in its beauty yet has this sense of harshness where it’s a place where a slave’s attempt to runaway is more treacherous where Northup would attempt that only to see what will happen as he would never do it again.

There’s also some intimate moments in McQueen’s direction such as the scene of Northup being chained inside a prison cell where it’s very dark with little light to showcase the horror that is to come. Even as McQueen doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the whippings and such where there’s some very chilling scenes that includes one of the most brutal sequences of whipping where it’s the sound of a whip hitting flesh that is the most unsettling. McQueen’s framing and some of the long shots he creates are just a marvel to watch in not just some of the drama that plays out but also some of the sense of terror that occurs. Though there are bits of humor in the film, it’s only just small bits as it plays into the drama and turmoil that Solomon Northup endures as the film’s ending is an absolute tearjerker. Overall, McQueen creates a very exhilarating yet haunting film about a man who endures the cruelty of slavery.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does some amazing work with the film‘s photography from the look of the Louisiana swamp landscapes and scenes set in the forest with its use of natural lights to some of the shadings and lighting schemes he uses for some of the film‘s interiors as well as the scenes set at night. Editor Joe Walker does brilliant work with the editing with its use of jump-cuts, rhythmic cuts, and dissolves to play into that sense of horror and drama that Northup endures. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, with set decorator Alice Baker and art director David Stein, does fantastic work with the set pieces from the plantations that Northup works at to the look of the homes and places that Northup lived before his capture.

Costume designer Patricia Norris does superb work with the costumes from the dresses the mistresses wear as well as the suits that the men wear as well as the rags the slaves have to wear. Sound editors Ryan Collins and Robert Jackson do excellent work with the sound work from the way dialogue is meshed in certain scenes to some sound effects that occur in the film such as the whippings and such to play into the sense of power in those moments. The film’s music by Hans Zimmer is phenomenal for its mixture of low-key orchestral music to some tremendous pieces that mixes some haunting percussions and string arrangements that play into the terror that occurs in the film.

The casting by Francine Maisler is incredible for the ensemble that is created as it features some notable small appearances from Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Zeigler as Northup’s children, Kelsey Scott as Northup’s wife Anne, Michael K. Williams as slave Northup meets early in the film, Garret Dillahunt as a drunkard who works with Northup picking Cotton, Dwight Henry as a slave Northup befriends in Uncle Dwight, Bryan Batt as the fair-minded slave master Judge Turner who would get Northup a job at a party, Liza J. Bennett as Ford’s wife, Chris Chalk as a slave Northup meets who tells him to not act too smart, and J.D. Evermore as Ford’s overseer Chapin who is forced to watch the action of Tibeats.

Other noteworthy performances include Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam as the two men who would trick and drug Northup into a job that would lead to his enslavement while Alfre Woodard is wonderful as a plantation mistress whom Patsey likes to drink tea with. Paul Giamatti is terrific as the slave trader Theophilius Freeman who does things to sell the slaves and presents them in the most cruel ways. Adepero Oduye is superb as the slave Eliza who deals with being separated from her children as she reminds Northup of the cruelty he has to face as a slave. Paul Dano is excellent as the slave master John Tibeats who sings a very horrific song while feeling threatened by Northup for being someone who can speak his mind and please Ford. Brad Pitt is amazing in a small yet cruel role as Samuel Bass who works with Northup during his time with Epps as he learns about his plight.

Sarah Paulson is brilliant as Mrs. Epps as a woman who loathes Patsey as she treats her with the worst kind of cruelty as she someone who proves to be just as extreme as her husband. Benedict Cumberbatch is marvelous as the kind William Ford who is intrigued by Northup as he gives him a violin while dealing with the cruelty of Tibeats as he makes an uneasy decision about giving Northup up. Lupita Nyong’o is tremendous as Patsey as this young slave woman who becomes this object of desire for Epps as she faces some of the most horrific moments a slave has to endure as it’s a performance that is just unforgettable to watch.

Michael Fassbender is remarkable as the cruel yet twisted plantation owner Edwin Epps who is a man that is just extreme in the way he treats his slaves as well as having this sick desire towards Patsey. There’s also this very haunting presence that Fassbender presents as a man who could probably kill someone as well as being ignorant about his ideas of the world. Finally, there’s Chiwetel Ejiofor in an outstanding performance as Solomon Northup. Ejiofor brings a sense of grounding to a man who faces a world that is different from the one he had lived in as he tries not to do anything yet is aware of how much of a threat he is. There’s also that sense of sadness and determination in Ejiofor’s performance to display a man who deals with not just loss but also the hopelessness of not being able to return home as it’s really a performance for the ages.

12 Years a Slave is a magnificent film from Steve McQueen that features a tour-de-force performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. Along with a great supporting cast and some amazing technical work from cinematographer Sean Bobbit and music composer Hans Zimmer. It’s a film that explores not just the horrific atrocity of slavery but also from the perspective of a free black man who is captured and endures this horror for 12 years as it’s told by McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley at its most visceral. In the end, 12 Years a Slave is a massively astonishing film from Steve McQueen.

Steve McQueen Films: Hunger - Shame - Widows (2018 film) - Small Axe - (Uprising (2022 film)) - (Occupied City) - (Blitz) - The Auteurs #52: Steve McQueen

© thevoid99 2013

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