I can’t lie about how terrible I felt walking out of the theater after seeing ‘12 Years a Slave‘. My mind was reeling, actually. How did America turn a blind eye to slavery for so long? Director Steve McQueen really puts it to the audience. While I say I walked out of the theater feeling terrible, I’m also highly thankful for the brutal honesty he puts on the screen. Unfortunately, slavery is a huge piece of American history and we cannot simply turn a blind eye to it. It happened, and we must bear that truth. ’12 Years a Slave‘ is the most honest storytelling I’ve ever seen, especially when it comes to the topic of slavery. While I enjoyed ‘The Butler‘ directed by Lee Daniels, it was more a showcase of the Civil Rights Movement than slavery, but it still carried the same sucker-punch feeling at certain times.
I haven’t seen much of Steve McQueen’s work, but he is fearless in his directing with this film. A grand feature, he immerses you in 18th-century American South at every chance he can. The way McQueen shot certain scenes only lends itself to the uncomfortable feelings I experienced as I snacked on buttery popcorn and candy. The longest take I recall still two weeks later is one of Solomon standing on his tiptoes in slippery mud in vain to stop himself from being hung by the noose around his neck. McQueen holds this shot for a very, very long time. Long enough to see pockets of slaves emerge from their houses and continue on with their chores. A woman runs by with a cup of water, hurriedly helping Solomon take a sip before running away for fear of being caught. No one offers to cut him down or help him stand on solid ground, not even the white master who told him not to run otherwise he wouldn’t be able to protect Solomon.
Hans Zimmer once again delivers a poignant score that adds to the suspense and fear of each scene. Between McQueen’s artistic eye and Zimmer’s score, hell on Earth is created in what should be some of the most beautiful locations the American South has to offer. But alas, the audience is never allowed to forget the desperation of our main players, even in the more lighthearted moments (and they are far and few in-between).
This ensemble cast is a tour de force. Many recognizable faces like Paul Dano, Paul Giammati, and Sarah Paulson, but also a few up-and-comers, like Best Supporting Actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o (who I am incredibly excited to watch in future films). Powerhouse figures like Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch do not pull from those in the lead, bu instead they lend their excellent acting abilities to an already fantastic cast. The stand-out of ’12 Years a Slave’ must be handed to Michael Fassbender. I’ve always admired him for the way he immerses himself into each of his characters in an all-consuming way, and his take on plantation owner Edwin Epps is no different. In fact, it’s downright terrifying. The sight of him made my gut shake in fear a little bit each time he walked on-screen.
The final scene is a poignant button on Solomon’s horrifying journey, but it still leaves you with a sense of hopelessness. Solomon was able to escape. What about the hundreds of thousands of others who didn’t have family and friends in the North to potentially come and rescue them?
While I was left opened-jawed more than a few times during this film, there were also moments so beautifully done, I couldn’t look away. Here are my Top 10 Favorite Moments from ‘12 Years a Slave‘: (WARNING: SPOILERS MAY LAY AHEAD!)
1.) The entire acting ensemble.
2.) Hans Zimmer’s score.
3.) Lupita Nyong’o. Where did she come from? (From a Harvard acting class, that’s where.)
4.) The constant sweat dripping off Solomon’s/Plat’s face.
5.) Brad Pitt. Leave it to his character to bring the over-hailing voice of reason to the story.
6.) A phenomenal scene all over a bar of soap, and Patsy’s small self-indulgence to be clean for picking 500 lbs. of cotton day after day.
7.) Each artistic cinematic shots of the scene on the tug boat ride.
8.) The Southern slave holder husband-wife relationship between Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender.
9.) Solomon is reuniting with his wife, two kids, and the added bonus of his daughter’s husband and infant son.
10.) Patsy saying good-bye to Plat when his friend from the North comes to save him.
HONORABLE MENTION: This clearly goes to Michael Fassbender and his terrifying performance (and I mean that in the best way possible).
I haven’t been moved by a movie in a long, long time, but along with the gut-wrenching ‘how did this happen’ feelings I felt while watching, I was also moved by the human moments that shined through. Singing hymns gloriously and loudly when a fellow field worker passes away, finding raspberry juice to double as ink, flexing his writing memory muscles by low candlelight, and so many more. There is light along with the dark, but this film is a true reminder masterpiece of what our American history holds.
I certainly won’t be forgetting any time soon.