TIFF Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is powerful, emotionally jarring, violent, visceral, raw, and true. There are few films that have rendered me speechless, and 12 Years a Slave is one of them.

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Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga, New York – a man with a wife, family, and employment – who is drugged and kidnapped to be sold into slavery. Without papers and no chance of escape that would end in anything other than death, Northup is forced into brutal servitude on two Southern work sites for over a decade: one run by the more sympathetic Master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other by the psychotic cotton plantation running Master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the violence and brutality depicted in 12 Years a Slave. The most overwhelming fact is that this is a true story – an incredible true story, and a horrific true story. Steve McQueen does justice to an unjust time in American history. McQueen’s film follows in the vein of Hunger and Shame, unrelenting in its realism and unflinching its take on difficult subject matter.

The cast is phenomenal – giving outstanding performances and in my opinion, a list of strong Oscar contenders.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor is incredible. This was a stunning effort on his part – and I’d be sorely disappointed if he doesn’t win for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards.  McQueen asks a lot of his leading man, as Northup’s dignity, faith and humanity are challenged at every turn. Northup’s pain, confusion, anger, anguish and hope, is so effectively translated through Ejiofor. His performance is constantly under close angle scrutiny; and his eyes carry every emotion and feeling that you could possibly want to convey. He is the heart and soul of this film. He is to be commended for a powerful and absolutely breathtaking performance. It’s about time that audiences and awards started taking notice of this extremely talented actor.

Frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender is absolutely terrifying as slave owner Edwin Epps – using scripture as a means to justify his violent “breaking” of disobedient slaves. Startling and so different from anything we’ve seen Fassbender do – it’s an awe-inspiring performance. Bordering on insanity, he is rough, mean and impulsive in a way that is terrifying to watch. This ferocity is why Fassbender is one of my favourite actors. He was unbelievably impressive – a definite contender for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Oscars.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o’s portrayal of Patsey stole the heart and sympathy of the entire audience. Graceful, sweet and hauntingly tragic, Lupita gave an incredible performance that hasn’t left me. Patsey is subject to the unwanted affection and cruelty of Epps, and the jealousy and hate of his wife (Sarah Paulson). Nyong’o carried some of the most difficult scenes of the film, and gave an outstanding performance that is worthy of awards notice.

The supporting cast are equally great – Benedict Cumberbatch as sympathetic (given the circumstances) slave owner Ford, Alfre Woodard as the cheeky slave mistress Shaw, Paul Dano as mill foreman John Tibeats, Paul Giamatti as slave seller Freeman, Adepero Oduye as the slave Eliza separated from her children, and Brad Pitt as Canadian abolitionist Bass.

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It is a hard film to watch. The beatings, the servitude, the degradation, the rapes, the injustice – McQueen does not hold back, nor should he. It’s a test of emotional endurance to watch this film.

There are two scenes in particular that have stayed with me since the film:

The first was the almost-lynching of Northup at the hands of John Tibeats. He is strung up, nearly killed, and left to hang for almost an entire day, while other slaves go about their labour – unable to help a man in need, in fear of the consequences that pity will unleash.

The second, and most intense scene was that of the beating of Patsey. Epps forces Northup to beat her nearly to death. The entire sequence is heightened by the way McQueen constructs the sequence within a single 10-minute shot, as the camera circles her abuse, Epps’ madness and Northup’s helplessness. The audience, myself included, was visibly and audibly horrified. The shock does not wear off – instead, McQueen chooses to use extended scenes of silence and reflection.

Hans Zimmer has produced a truly ominous and beautiful score – but it’s the scenes of incredible quiet that provoke the greatest emotional response.  McQueen is a master of creating tension – and he does it in the simplest of ways – by making the audience wait, with uncertainty as to what will happen next.

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In contrast to the ugliness it depicts, the film is beautifully shot. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography and spiritual gospels create a sense of hope and beauty in the darkest of moments. There is optimism in Northup, even when faced with so much hate.

I’m honoured to have attended this premiere, with director Steve McQueen, producers, writer John Ridley, composer Hans Zimmer, and cast members including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard and Adepero Oduye in attendance.

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Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave TIFF Premiere – Sept 6, 2013
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The cast and crew of 12 Years A Slave – TIFF Premiere – Sept 6, 2013

After the final credits rolled, McQueen returned to the stage with his cast and crew, to a well deserved standing ovation.

When asked of the violence and brutality depicted in the film, Nyong’o replied that “it was necessary”. A sentiment with which I whole-heartedly agree.  For all the mentions of violence and brutality that will surround this film, it’s important to note that the real horrors of slavery were worse. While Solomon Northup suffered for 12 years, slavery and its aftermath have extended for hundreds.

Of the decision to make this film, Pitt said:”Steve [McQueen] was the first to ask the big question: why have there not been more films on American history of slavery? It took a Brit to ask it ….  And I just have to say: if I never get to participate in a film again, this is it for me.”

This did it for me. I left that theatre in awe, emotionally drained and excited for the conversation that this film will provoke. The cast and crew should be proud. They have made a phenomenal and important film. 12 Years a Slave is a contender for Best Picture, and the best film I have seen this year. It is magnificent. It is a triumph.

12 Years a Slave will be released in limited theatres on October 18.

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