There’s nothing more satisfying than when indie directors hit it big. Previously known in art circles as an experimental filmmaker, McQueen first hit the feature scene with Hunger and made his second appearance with 2011’s Shame. Although I had some harsh criticisms of the later, there was something unmistakable about McQueen’s skill and technique. They were pretty to look at and had unmistakable craft but never had much of a story or characterization to back them up. With his latest release, 12 Years a Slave, McQueen surrenders the screenwriting reigns and focuses on what he does best. The end result is a masterfully made film featuring great performances and heartbreaking drama.
Long time theater actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a New York based carpenter and fiddle player. When asked to do a series of performances for a circus, he agrees and, after a long night of drinking, finds himself in bondage. Tricked by the men who hired him, he is sold into slavery and with no papers to prove his freedom, begins his journey through hardship and oppression.
The foremost selling point of the movie is Ejiofor in the lead role. Simply put, he’s outstanding and should be a slam dunk nomination for a Best Actor Oscar. Despite being thrown through the emotional ringer, Ejiofor’s Solomon remains still, stoic and intense. He also has an incredible sense of where the camera is and uses that knowledge to measure out every movement and action. Ejiofor also makes everyone around him better, crucial for a lead.
Good thing he isn’t surrounded by shlubs. The entire cast lends authenticity to the brutal situation they find themselves. Benedict Cumberbatch is complex as Solomon’s first master, Paul Dano is stunning as a hateful overseer and Paul Giamatti is great playing a heartless slave trader. The main support role goes to Michael Fassbender who plays Epps, a cotton plantation owner with an eye for the whiskey and wonton cruelty. The character of Epps is a ball of internal conflict and while Fassbender is slightly over the top, he never breaks character. The only minor blemish is Brad Pitt, who plays a sympathetic hired hand. He’s not bad by any stretch, but he simply plays himself. It’s just Brad Pitt hammering boards.
The script is also noteworthy. Penned by John Ridley (Three Kings, Red Tails), the screenplay makes some smart choices, most notably giving all the black actors beautiful prose rather than cliché “slave speak”. This is to be expected from Solomon as he’s an educated man, but even the born and bred workers are eloquent and well read. This table turning makes for some stunning dialogue and pitch perfect acting moments. McQueen also shoots the film with a deft, patient hand, using unorthodox techniques only when they enhance the story. As a result, the movie looks splendid even when the story turns gut wrenching and brutal.
12 Years a Slave has the potential to be one of those awards clean up movies, the type nobody sees until it rolls out a wheelbarrow of Oscars. With an exceptional cast, perfect directing and an award worthy performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the latest in a recent run of slavery movies is easily the best of the bunch. A film of power and vision, 12 Years a Slave is an easy frontrunner for a Best Picture Oscar.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born, New York based and Austin bound, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of media. He currently writes bi-monthly reviews for Pantheon Magazine and his micro fiction story, K, was recently accepted for publication in Solarcide’s flash fiction compilation, Flash Me. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. Check out more of his work atwww.thesurrealityproject.com.