By Andy Stuckey and Ryan Maddux
---- — This week we watched likely Oscar-contender 12 Years a Slave (R).
Steve McQueen directs the story, based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Noethup. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Noethup, a free man who was kidnapped into slavery in the South during the decades before the Civil War. The recognizable cast of costars includes Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt.
Ryan: 12 Years a Slave is a heart-wrenching movie that is artistically shot by Steve McQueen. The movie, and this is a good thing, is not presented in typical Hollywood fashion (besides movie stars intermittently show up in the movie). What I mean by that is that the film is focused more on exploring emotional truths than literal truths. This isn’t a film constructed in a manner where we have detailed character traits of the protagonists and antagonists. (Most characters just come and go). The audience doesn’t really know much about Solomon (Platt) or the various plantation slave owners. Much of a back story is left up to the audience to imagine. That works to the film’s advantage by singling in on the raw emotions of being a slave in the Antebellum South. There are several scenes where the dehumanization of a slave is cinematically shot in a hard-to-watch manner. And while these scenes are brutal to watch, they are important in processing the emotional sinful core of what slavery was like in America.
Andy: The book 12 Years a Slave is often forgotten in the canon true slave narrative to come from this horrific chapter of U.S. History. Frederick Douglas’s Narrative is probably the most well-known, and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is anthologized more, but 12 Years a Slave gives us the unique perspective of a previously free man who has that freedom taken away by the institution of slavery. The result is a character that is easier to identify with, especially coupled with the restrained construction that relies on the audience to fill in the back story and attach appropriate emotions. A film like this could easily feel like it has devolved into gratuitous violence, but there is nothing gratuitous here. The violence is purposely overwhelming, but it comes with a historical and personal emotional cost that reminds us how great cinema can transport us and make us feel things that we did not expect.
Ryan: Brilliant and haunting performances highlight this movie. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Solomon/ Platt, is a revelation. Many times without even speaking Ejiofor is able to convey many staunch emotions simply by the look he is giving. He makes Noethup a strong, sympathetic character and not just one the audience feels sorry for. The other accomplished performance in the film is that of Michael Fassbender. It is one of the more sinister performances that I’ve ever seen on film, and there’s something about the performance that is frightfully credible. They are both award-worthy achievements.
Andy: The two performances Ryan mentions are astounding, particularly Ejiofor’s ability to carry entire scenes in the movie with just his anguished face filling the screen. I would add Nupita Nyong’o to that list, as she is able to create a profoundly impactful character who only has a few scenes where she gets to talk. Those few scenes are memorable enough that I would anticipate hearing her name mentioned frequently come awards season.
Ryan: The only nitpick I would have with the film is use of stars in supporting/ cameo roles. Some of them come across smoothly (Paul Giamatti) and some do not fit the pacing of the film (Benedict Cumberbath and Paul Dano). But the one by Brad Pitt is immensely distracting. And it’s more unfortunate because it occurs at a critical juncture in the film. But like I said that’s more of a minor squabble than anything else.
12 Years a Slave is a beautifully filmed movie with subject matter so profound that it is difficult to watch. Ultimately the triumph of the art and the importance of the story it tells overshadows any other shortcoming, earning a final grade of A-.