Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" is the One Film You Should See This Year

Sunday evening I went to see 12 Years a Slave, a new motion picture starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, two of the finest actors in film right now. Perhaps you've heard of this one. It's based on the true story a Solomon Northup, a free black man who had a family and lived in New York in the mid-1800s. A musician by trade, Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. For twelve years he worked on plantations and suffered under the cruelty of slave owners, After he was finally rescued and returned to his family, Northup wrote a firsthand account of his experience that was published in 1853. His book, Twelve Years a Slave, was a best seller and helped open the country's eyes to the horror of slavery. 

John Ridley, a screenwriter with credits as varied as U-Turn (1997), Undercover Brother (2002) and Red Tails (2012), adapted Northup's memoir, crafting an exceptional screenplay that uses beautiful language to capture a time in our history when being able to speak eloquently could cost a man his hide. Steve McQueen, the British born film director with only two other credits - Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), both starring Fassbender - tackled this historical drama with a mixture of eloquence and horror, and has made a flawless movie.
As I sat through the first half hour of 12 Years a slave, I felt I was watching an IMPORTANT film. You know these movies- ones like Schindler's List, Platoon and Gentleman's Agreement that are socially conscious stories that hope to change the way you, the viewer, see the world. Of course 12 Years a Slave is an important film, as it shows slavery in a way that I can't recall ever being depicted on film. If the unflinching brutality at this movie-and it is very brutal- does not cause you to become physically angry, I dare say you are lacking in some humanity.  

What I didn't expect from 12 Years a Slave was the beauty McQueen creates. Working with Director of Photography, Sean Bobbitt, there are many meditative moments throughout the film that record the wonder of Louisiana, where the film takes place. The quiet of the sky, gorgeous silhouettes of tall trees dripping with Spanish moss, the wondrous stars in the sky. All of these creations from God are the backdrop of degradation and evil. It's as if McQueen wanted us to acknowledge the dichotomy of good and evil, beauty and ugliness standing side by side.

While this film is full of misery I did feel some hope. Although Northup sinks to great depths of despair, he continues to takes risks to try and gain his freedom and return to home to his wife and children. 12 Years a Slave accomplishes what all movies try to do: it creates a strong protagonist in Northup and has you rooting for him throughout the story. Of course, I knew the outcome of the story, but McQueen is a gifted storyteller and managed to make me forget about the real life situations and become completely engrossed with the screen story.

Across the board the ensemble cast - which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard - are exceptional. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o gives a standout performance as Patsey, the victim of Fassbender's plantation owner's abuse and lust. This is one of the most stunning film debuts in years. I guarantee she will receive an Academy Award nomination. Likewise, Ejiofor and Fassbender should be locks for nominations, While you may see many great acting performances this year, none will top the work of these two men. 

As the final credits rolled and Hans Zimmer's remarkable score played, I openly sobbed at the "happy" ending. I wasn't alone. I was at a loss for words; not numb, but in awe.

 12 Years a Slave is an important film, that's true, but it's also a true work of art, from every aspect of the production. The acting, direction, cinematography, music, writing and especially the editing (by Joe Walker). Whether or not it wins the awards it deserves, this movie will be talked about for generations. It's strange to admit that I want to experience it again, but 12 years a Slave is that tremendous. It's one of the best moves I have seen. Ever. 

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