“I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
That was the first line uttered by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) when he reunites with his family after 12 years away, kidnapped and enslaved before finally regains his rights as a freeman. Tales of slavery and racism in America colored several feature films i saw this year, from Tarantino’s Djanggo Unchained (2012) and Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013). Of course this one was something i’ve been looking forward to the most, not only because Ejiofor playing the lead, but mostly because it’s Steve McQueen‘s. So i am so ecstatic that this was one of the better selections of JIFFEST world cinema program. And it’s worth cramping my neck over for i only manage to secured the last couple of tickets on the front row.
Solomon Northup was a freeman, a violin player, living happily with his family in New York. He thought he had a high-paying job as traveling with a circus to washington, only to find himself drugged and chained to the floor, kidnapped and sold to slavery, coerced to assume a new identity called Platt. He experienced what it was to be a man without freedom, going from one masters to another, the next was worse than the last, until he worked under the cruel Edward Epps (Michael Fassbender). Working under the cruel master for almost a decade, Northup constantly lost hopes, his spirit broken from what he saw. Until a canadian carpenter came and give him a chance in redemption.
I was breathless. 12 Years A Slave took my breath away by its severe depiction of how Northup life changes drastically, brutally. I love the way McQueen plays with the timeline, giving each flashback a deeper meaning through each segmentation. In a lot of ways i thought 12 Years A Slave would be a very different film than his previous features, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). But i thought wrong. Despite the other two is a very articulate character studies, there’s still that same severity in 12 Years that is true to McQueen aesthetic. His unflinching and unforgiving bluntness in telling a story still resonate loudly here. He does not shy away from showing the callousness of the people involved in slave trades, even the character that seemed most compassionate, show his opinion about slavery is still very much the same with the most evil masters. There are moments i found myself wanting to run out of the theater, seeing the same long, uninterrupted takes McQueen used to effectively achieve the effect he desires, creating discomfort to the audience. The shot of Northup standing tip-toe in the mud as his enemy hung him on a tree with a rope around his neck, and we witness his struggle to stay upright, with only gasps of his labored breath audible from the screen.
Ejiofor finally in a role that earned him the recognition and accolades he well deserved. His subtle performance was graceful, staying away from the cloying over-sentimentality i found in The Butler. His character become a study on its own. I was lost in emotions when he was singing along ‘Roll Jordan, Roll‘ as he and the other slaves buried one of their own, one of the most momentous scene in the film. Michael Fassbender, in his first non lead role in McQueen films, show an eerie level of evil and cruelty. Justifying his deeds using the bible and the name of God. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o ecoming the embodiment of emotions, fears, heartache, and that hopelessness in the body of a slave girl Patsey. She manage to upstage fellow talented actors such as Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and frankly made Brad Pitt felt like the weakest link.
It is no wonder that McQueen manage to deliver a great movie. His impeccable directing was supported by amazing ensemble of actors as well as technical crews. Sean Bobbitt composed each shot to perfection and Hans Zimmer score amplify the atmosphere of each scene beautifully. Even then, Zimmer’s score is not what made the film’s music that much special. It is the music that is embedded into the storyline is what add more texture to the film. From the beautiful violin that Northup fiddled with against the backdrop of a woman’s sobbing pleads and screams, Dano’s ‘Run Niger, Run‘, Nyong’o’s humming to herself as she sat on a field making dolls out of corn husks and silks, to the gospel tradition during a burial. The music was not only a background score, it has a certain functions that contribute to the whole story.
I know that 12 Years A Slave was a scarring and horrifying film experience for me. I probably would not want to endure the film again, at least not in the foreseeable future. But it was such a great film, to remind us of an important lesson to re-learn from our history. An impressive feat that is very hard to achieve. Garnering so many accolades (let’s just see how many nominations it will win at those awards), as well as making it into AFI 2013 Best Film list as well as many other critics personal choice, 12 Years A Slave deserves all the recognitions and praises. A film that is important for all to see.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
GENRE Biopic, Historical, Drama
DIRECTOR Steve McQueen | PRODUCER Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohland, Steve McQueen, Bill Pohland, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas | WRITER John Ridley | MUSIC Hans Zimmer | CINEMATOGRAPHER Sean Bobbitt | EDITOR Joe Walker | STUDIO Regency Enterprises, Film4, River Road Entertainment, Plan B Entertainment | DISTRIBUTOR Fox Searchlight Pictures, Summit Entertainment, Film4 | COUNTRY United States, United Kingdom | RUNNING TIME 134 minutes | BUDGET $20 Million | RATING R for strong graphic violence, grisly images, strong sexual content and language | RELEASE October 18, 2013 (US, limited), January 10, 2014 (UK), November 23, 2013 (Jiffest)
STARRING Chiwitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Quvenzhané Wallis, Adepero Oduye
DID YOU KNOW? This feature film is not the first film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir. Previously, a TV movie was made in 1984, part of American Playhouse series titled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.
A little coincidence i found amusing: During 2013 Jakarta International Film Festival (Jiffest), McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was screened with Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo this year’s winner of Camera d’Or of Cannes Film Festival. McQueen first feature film, Hunger (2008) was also a winner of the same award.
Illustration by Rich Kelly