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TIFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave Review

Every year there is one movie that comes to TIFF and becomes an instant hit. This year, that movie was 12 Years a Slave, the winner of the top prize, the People’s Choice Award. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt, this movie follows the true story from the book written by Solomon Northup, who was falsely kidnapped into slavery. Watch the trailer after the jump and then read my review.

There are so many things that make this movie special, but I think the biggest is that it was based on a book written by Solomon Northup. It plays out the way a first-person narrative should, with Solomon appearing somewhere in every scene, sometimes just as an observer. With only his perspective, the story is easy to follow and whatever happens to him has much more emotional weight.

Director Steve McQueen does not hold back in his portrayal of one of the darkest times in history and he does not spoon feed the audience. There is no sense of time passing until the very last scene when Solomon sees how much his children have grown up. There is a lot of blood and violent beatings. There are also a lot of creepy characters who firmly believe they are better than Solomon because they own him. With Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead, McQueen creates a socially disturbing film that rivals Schindler’s List in its portrayal of racism.

There are a three scenes that really stood out to me for capturing how brutal the slave owners were.

Paul Giamatti appears in exactly two scenes, but his character is a salesman who is absolutely chilling. The way he approaches selling Solomon to Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Ford borders on insanity. Without knowing anything about the slaves he has in custody, Giamatti tells Ford how hard-working they are and let’s him examine them naked. He speaks very highly of them, but then separates a mother from her children and beats others into standing straight. It was a dark but memorable scene early on that captured what kind of slave owners Solomon would encounter on his journey.

While on Ford’s plantation, Solomon works under Paul Dano’s John Tibeats who mocks the slaves with a creepy song about slaves who run away. Tibeats dances around like a fool singing these songs, and the slaves, while holding axes for cutting trees, are still powerless against him. Not only are they brutally beaten, but all ideas of escape are erased from their minds by a song that talks about slaves who are killed for running away. There are few character actors like Dano who could pull this off and the psychological fear he puts into the characters can be felt by the audience.

The last scene I want to discuss comes much later in the movie, and the script builds slowly to this moment. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o plays another slave named Patesy who lives on Edwin Epps’s (Michael Fassbender) plantation. For disobeying Epps, she is whipped to near death. And from the angle this is shot, the massive cuts on her back appear in real-time in some of the most shocking footage in the whole film. If the two hours of film before didn’t shock you, this scene certainly will.

There are other scenes involving hanging, alcohol and rape that continue the brutality but I picked those three because they showed the type of story McQueen was trying to show us. A story of constant fear and unbalanced power.

I think the easiest category to pick at the Oscars this year will be Best Actor, because Chiwetel Ejiofor earned it here. As mentioned, his Solomon appears in every scene and goes through massive physical and psychological torture that are perfectly captured in this performance. There are many scene where Solomon is beaten but we see Ejiofor’s face during them and the pain in it feels real. I was chilled by his acting and will be cheering for him all awards season. This is the role that will define his career and should lead him to be cast in better movies than 2012 or Salt. 

Michael Fassbender is at his best in the role that should finally earn him an Oscar too. He is arguably the most talented actor of his generation and this role as the evil Epps continues that trend. What makes him so creepy is his belief that he is both better than his slaves and that it is his divine right to set them in their place. The menace in his face and determination in his actions can be directly compared to Ralph Fiennes Oscar nominated performance in Schindler’s List. He genuinely believes what he does is right, and nothing can be done to stop him, character traits Fassbender brings to life on screen.

Lupita Nyong’o is the only other cast member I want to go into detail about because she breaks into the industry with an amazing performance here. Her character Patesy arguably goes through more hardships than Solomon, mostly at the hands of Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) who feels threatened by the one slave girl her husband admires. Patesy gets her face smashed by a bottle, is forcibly raped and is beaten to the brink of death. Lupita Nyong’o captures this suffering in ways I’ve never seen before and her call for death is one of the most heartbreaking things on screen this year.

The rest of the cast is all talented and full of big names. Actors like Bryan Bratt (Mad Men), Taran Killam (SNL) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Oscar nominee for Beasts of the Southern Wild) all play extremely small supporting roles and didn’t even make my list at the top of the post. Brad Pitt only appears in two scenes. You know you have a big cast when that happens.

Steve McQueen has made a movie that will stand the test of time as the definitive slavery movie. And it does so by taking the broad subject and narrowing it down to one man and his experiences. That is the key to the film’s success. Despite everything that is happening around him, the audience is locked to Solomon Northup’s experience. We travel on a journey of suffering and fear with him and it is truly amazing.

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