I went and saw 12 Years a Slave today after hearing phenomenal reviews and seeing the trailer. The film has Oscar Bait written all over it and I wanted to see if the hype was warranted. It was and it wasn’t.
Yes, 12 Years a Slave is a powerful film. It tells the story of Solomon Northrup and how he, a free man living in New York, was forced into slavery in Georgia where he spent 12 years surviving on the different plantations he worked on. His story is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, but while watching the film I felt like I was being told exactly how I was supposed to feel. Of course I felt terrible for the situations Solomon and the other slaves lived through – NO ONE should have had to gone through that. As our government’s documents say, “all men are created equal,” so there is no excuse for how poorly slaves were treated. (People are not property. No person is worth more or less than another person, nor should s/he be treated as such. Basically all the rhetoric Brad Pitt’s character said in the movie…) But, at the same time, I thought some of the sequences and specific shots in the film were wholly self-indulgent and were put in for the shock-value they provided. At times, this was used well (the scene were a hanged slave is barely surviving by standing on his tiptoes for almost an entire day), at other times, I was put off by the in-your-face nature of it all (I’m all for close ups of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beyond expressive face, but the camera hung on him so long, I became distracted by his contact lenses that he was obviously wearing…). The film has graphic depictions of violence (Remember The Passion of the Christ? This film was way worse than that, lashings-wise. I had to look away a few times.), but it’s sadly necessary to drive home the point that slavery was one of the stupidest and inhumane things our country ever took part in.
The cast for this film was amazing. Ejiofor continues to amaze me with the amount of emotion and character he is able to display with his facial expressions and body language. He is graceful on screen and is an ideal protagonist. You root for him because you care. You care because he should never have had to live through that. And honestly, it’s amazing he did. (That’s not a spoiler… the movie is based off of the book he wrote about being enslaved for 12 years.)
Another standout performer is Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey (a slave woman who works alongside Solomon at Edwin Epps’s plantation). This woman goes through hell and then is repeatedly dragged back through it. She’s a hard worker who is on the receiving end of unwanted affection and detestation from the Epps patriarch (Michael Fassbender – beyond creepy and a total asshat) and matriarch (Sarah Paulson – oh my god, I wanted to smack her so hard and/or scratch at her face). Patsey asks Solomon for a favor in one scene and it breaks your heart, but not as much as her lashing scene. (Also not a spoiler – basically anyone who is a slave in the film gets beat at one point or another because slavery was a terrible, terrible, terrible thing that hurt a lot of people who didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of such intolerance.)
And then there are the slave owners/overseers. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Solomon’s first owner and was the “nicest” one of the lot. He didn’t actively beat his slaves, but he didn’t treat them as equals either. Conversely, Michael Fassbender portrays a borderline maniacal slave owner who states on multiple occasions that slaves are property and he can treat them however he wants. (If I could have reached through the movie screen and ripped his nuts off, I would have.) Brad Pitt’s character confused me. He seemed like a wanderer who was just kind of there. He was one of the few white characters in the film that saw that slavery was wrong and spouted all sorts of equality-driven dialogue at Fassbender’s character. I am not a Brad Pitt fan, but I obviously had to like his character because he was one of the only people who spoke out against all the wrongdoings that were going on.
The cinematography for the film was gorgeous while the editing left something to be desired. There were some shots and short sequences of scenery that dragged a bit. I get that they were meant to establish location, but I cared about Solomon and would rather have had a few less water shots to keep his story going.
I knew Hans Zimmer did the music before the credits rolled. My favorite bit of music was a sequence that sounded like it might have been lifted from Inception – a series of loud, long, ominous tones to heighten the drama and cause unrest. I dug it.
Before the movie started, I tried to scope out what other people were in the audience – whether people came alone or were with others. I heard a child or two somewhere in the theater (this movie is NOT appropriate for little ones… holy hell). There was a wide variety of people, which I thought was good. I went to the movie by myself, but ended up seated near a group of black women who were my age or a little younger. The woman seated closest to me handed me a wad of tissues part way through the film. I wasn’t crying (my nose is just always running), but I accepted the tissues and thanked her just the same. I did tear up a couple times (there is a scene with Solomon and his violin that symbolized him finally losing hope and that really got to me, as well as the ending… oh, that ending), but I didn’t cry. I did let out a few curse words during scenes where Solomon and/or other slaves were treated poorly, or when Solomon had the courage to stand up for himself/others. But then people clapped at the end of the movie… I hate it when people clap at movies. Ugh.
12 Years a Slave is a good movie. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen ever, but I can see it getting nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and perhaps some production awards. However, I think that critics and awards voters need to think about the quality of the film, though, and not just the message. I mean, yes, obviously slavery is beyond wrong and the film’s message is inspiring, but giving this film a slew of awards it might not deserve when compared to other worthy films is not going to change the fact that slavery existed. Handing 12 Years a Slave a bunch of trophies will not make up for the terrible things slaves went through. Instead, people should look at this film and vow never to let anything like that happen again. (Yes, I’m talking to YOU, people who still treat minority/disenfranchised groups of people with less respect than they deserve…)
Awards season is just beginning. 12 Years a Slave is a contender, but I wouldn’t push it to the front of the Oscar race just yet since we still have two months of releases to go.