There are a number of films that are entertaining. Other films focus more on emotion, pathos and performances from its cast. A few films are instead are purely visual, sticklers for in pursuit of masterful cinematography. Some films dismiss all these notions and shoot for pedagogy, preaching a higher idea or message at whatever expense. Naturally, amidst these categories hybrids are found. These films mix and match one, two, or even three of these elements, though they often wind up lacking one of the others. Once in a blue moon however, a film emerges that manages to capture all of these elements into one cohesive whole, a story that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging, visually stunning, yet still has something to say behind all the pretty pictures. These are essential films; films that will be taught at schools and inspire future filmmakers, whilst changing the landscape of film as a whole.
12 Years A Slave has more than earned the right to be deemed one of those films. The film manages to weave together so many strong individual elements into a cohesive, powerful, beautiful whole.
The premise is simple. Solomon Northup, played by the brilliant, magnetizing Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a successful black family man living free in Saratoga, New York, until he is tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery, spending the next twelve years of his life in bondage. The film fully absorbs the viewer into Solomon’s world, showing not only one of our country’s darkest, most horrific eras, but also the humanity that managed to shine amidst it.
12 Years a Slave proves to be more than just a history lesson. Solomon is an intelligent, noble character who is forced to make agonizing decisions with unpredictable consequences. The characters that surround him are all three-dimensional whether they be the sadistic Edwinn Epps (played chillingly by Michael Fassbender) or the frail beauty Patsy (brought to life by the striking Lupita Nyong’o). The conflicts and relationships between these characters drive every scene. There is never a moment of ennui in the film. Every scene fleshes out the characters, throws the plot through a loop, or manages to sucker punch the audience right in the heart.
12 Years A Slave is not just a strong story, it’s a strong film. Never has the dark brutal world of the south ever looked so beautiful. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt knows exactly when to get us up close and personal, and when to pull back to let us soak in the setting. The films soundtrack is identical, perfectly utilizing Hans Zimmer’s score, African-American spirituals, and natural sound at just the right time for just the right moment. Ultimately, all these elements succeed in bringing to life one man’s story in the midst of one of America’s darkest times.
However it is worth noting that 12 Years A Slave is not a film for the faint of heart. The film is about slavery and it does not shy away from the horrors of the era, horror that is far more graphic and emotionally draining than any slasher flick. Because of this, some viewers might (and should) struggle to stomach the film’s content.
However, this is ultimately one of the points of the film. It is an honest; no holds barred look at what slavery did to the life of one man. It’s a story that needs to be told to audiences of any race, and one that is masterfully told on every level. 12 Years A Slave is a masterpiece that deserves every drop of its praise, and it would be a shame to miss the chance to see it on the big screen.