I did see 12 Years a Slave back in October when it came out, but because of how busy I was and how confused I was about this movie, I didn’t review it then. I’m really glad to have been able to take a second look at it. Weird expectations and a lousy theater audience would have combined to make me hate on this movie a lot more than is appropriate, because it’s actually a great movie. I’m really glad I could see it again, and review it here, as I’ve finally figured out how I feel about this. I still think there are a few minor issues, but they didn’t seem as big of a deal to me the second time around, and they can be mostly overlooked.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York, earning his living primarily by playing the violin. When his wife and children are out of town, he accepts a job to play for a travelling circus, but instead of doing that (or maybe after, I can’t quite tell) he gets kidnapped into slavery. He flashes back to his free life with some frequency when he is first kidnapped, and in these he is always treated with respect. He is happy and contented with his former life, but that all gets taken away from him.
He is given a new name, Platt, and sold first to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is sold to Ford along with another woman, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who is separated from her children. When another man buys her son, Ford tries to buy the daughter, but he doesn’t try that hard. When they get back home, his wife assumes Eliza will forget about her children once she settles in. Eliza tells Solomon her story, that her previous master used to favor her, until his daughter grew jealous and sold her. She makes the argument that no matter how well behaved a slave you are, it won’t do you any good. Eliza is just one of the many examples of despair and hopeless Solomon sees.
For me, it was helpful to view Solomon’s story as sort of a journey where he encounters a lot of terrible things, but is not necessarily out to accomplish anything but his return home. This may seem obvious as he’s kidnapped into slavery, of course he didn’t do that voluntarily to accomplish anything, but it can be really frustrating if you think of Northup as a tradition hero that is all powerful and can get himself out of any situation. Such is not the case; Django Unchained this is not. He really is a victim of fate, or more accurately, the institution of slavery. He just has to keep his head down and be patient, take some risks along the way, but no way is he going to run away. There’s no future in it.
He does pretty well at Ford’s, until he has a run in with his overseer (Paul Dano). Northup tries sucking up to Ford a bit, but it doesn’t really get him too far (as expected). He helps him move his lumber more efficiently, and plays the violin for him. This just makes Dano’s character hate him all the more. Ford respects him a little bit more, but not enough to do much good. The thing about Ford is that even though he’s nice compared to what’s to come, he still isn’t very nice at all, and is only willing to be so if it doesn’t put him in financial trouble. After Northup is almost hanged by Dano’s character, all Ford talks to him about is his debt, but just the same, he gets him out of danger of his overseer.
He sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a slave owner notorious for his cruelty. According to Ford, he’s the only one who would take Northup after what he did, as a challenge to break him. He believes wholeheartedly in Christianity’s justification of slavery, and uses it repeatedly to lecture to his slaves. He is especially obsessed with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young woman who can pick more cotton than any man there. However, true to the pattern, that doesn’t do her much good as Epps rapes her regularly and his wife (Sarah Paulson) punishes her all the more severely for it. Driven to desperation, she begs Solomon to drown her so she can finally be free.
There’s a weird, for lack of a better word, love triangle that develops between Patsey, Epps, and Mrs. Epps. There’s no love involved at all, as nobody treats Patsey like a human being and I highly doubt Epps and his wife actually love each other. It’s more based on jealousy and obsession rather than love, but is all the more powerful and interesting for it. The first time I saw this film I thought this side-plot was more interesting than the main one and should have possibly taken over the entire film. Now, I don’t quite think that on the second viewing, but I can still kind of see why I did originally. The aimlessness of Northup’s journey, while true to fact and completely understandable, didn’t sit too well with me. In this subplot there is a lot power struggles and it is really fascinating to watch. I started to wonder how much cruelty comes from Epps and how much comes from his wife, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to figure it out for one hundred percent sure.
One of the only complaints I have with this film that turned out to be just as big of a problem this time around as it did the first time, was that the language is strange. I don’t mean that I didn’t understand what people were talking about, I’m saying that it seemed like the old-timey southern language was maybe giving people problems at some points. It felt like acting and affectation, that’s all I’m trying to say. The emotions and plot points and everything come across just fine, but it feels like at some times the actors couldn’t make the language seem natural. It didn’t happen a lot, but it happened enough so that I noticed. Also the accents were kind of funny, how Fassbender sounds more Irish when he’s mad and Cumberbatch correspondingly sounds more British. I don’t even know what Brad Pitt thought he was sounding like. I know it sounds like I’m nitpicking and I really am, none of this takes away from the film in a major way, but so much praise has been lavished on this film that I don’t like I have anything new to say on that front. I thought all of the performances, especially Fassbender and Nyong’o, were very good, what else can I say.
12 Years a Slave deals with a lot of difficult issues, and because of this, I really have to praise how it is shot. It doesn’t shy away from showing the uglier aspects, in fact they are highlighted. The camera never looks away from a whipping, the hanging, or any other beatings or brutalities that come up. The camera generally remains still and forces you to look at all the horrible things that happen. The violence is not cut out or softened in anyway, and for a film depicting the harshness of slavery, this is very necessary. Just as a side note of no real importance, I love how the camera did move through the sugar cane in the beginning; it reminded me a lot of I am Cuba.
I’m really glad I took the time to go back and review this film, because now I know what I think it about it. I was getting very confused after the first time I saw it, and I’m happy that I got my story straight so to speak. I realize that doesn’t make a ton of sense, but that’s how it was. So I got in line mainly with what everyone else was saying about this, but that’s fine. There are a few issues and I don’t think this is a perfect film, but I do like it and appreciate it a lot. It’s not my favorite from 2o13, but it’s up there.
“I’m damned. I’ll be god… Were he not free and white, Platt. Were he not free and white.”