Review: 12 Years a Slave


Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

"Survival's... about keeping your head down."
"I don't want to survive, I wanna live."

I sincerely hope that 2013 is the break-out year for Chiwetel Ejiofor, when he gets the attention from filmgoers (and filmmakers) he so deserves.  With his phenomenal, determined performance as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave (and his part in the upcoming dramatization of Half of a Yellow Sun), it could happen!

If, like Jette, you read Northup's biography/slave narrative in school, you're familiar with the story. Northup was a free man of color in mid-19th Century Saratoga, NY, lovingly caring for his wife and two young children and playing the fiddle for parties in the region. Taken in by con men while his family is away, Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery under another name. He is beaten, threatened, denigrated and tortured during his dozen years as a slave to a couple of plantation owners.

Denial of identity is a major theme of 12 Years a Slave. Upon landing in New Orleans after a horrific steamboat ride, the slave auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) calls Northup by the name of Platt. Captured woman Eliza (Adepero Oduye, Pariah) still calls him Solomon, but once she is gone we see Northup giving in to his renaming. Hope remains that he will be found and taken out of slavery, but as Platt he can't keep straining against the forces holding him down. The last embers of a letter he wanted to send home (and cannot) glow and fade onscreen. When his name -- and the freedom it represents -- is finally returned to him, Ejiofor exhibits Northup's deep relief and joy, lessened only by knowing he cannot help the others left behind.

McQueen's direction here is adept and attentive to the story. In multiple scenes, Ejiofor is centered onscreen so we can view his horror, dismay, or even hope.  A hanging sequence shows Northup scrabbling his feet in mud as slaves and other people in the background go on about their daily tasks. Children frolic in the field behind and Northup remains in sight on the tree. One could close their eyes and cover their face through some of the other violent scenes, but it's impossible to ignore the poignancy of this long shot.

12 Years a Slave -- and the screenplay by John Ridley -- remains fairly faithful to its source (although reading this summary of Northup's original work cleared up a couple of questions I had about the plot). There are so many characters Northup encounters during his forced journey, and unfortunately some of the casting selections detract from the impact of the film. I giggled when I recognized Bryan Batt (Mad Men) and Garret Dillahunt (Raising Hope) in their small roles. Michael Fassbender goes ridiculously over-the-top here as drunk, maniacal slave-owner Epps, especially in contrast to the chilling despicableness of his wife (excellently played by Sarah Paulson). However, the same casting folks also chose Alfre Woodard and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, so I can't fault them too much. Woodard makes a cameo as a plantation owner's wife who used to be a slave, and Nyong'o plays Patsey, a "favorite" of Epps who is tormented by Mistress Epps (Paulson). Nyong'o's wails as her back is tended to after a beating convey Patsey's utter suffering.

The music in 12 Years a Slave adds another emotional layer. The slaves sing call-and-response songs as they work in the fields and a spiritual ("Roll Jordan Roll") as a memorial to a fallen man. Since Northup was a musician, violin music features largely into the score and soundtrack -- performed by Tim Fain, although Ejiofor did learn enough fingering so that it appears as if he's fiddling. Hans Zimmer's score is hauntingly melodic at times (vaguely Copland-esque) and harshly percussive in others. As Northup is loaded on the boat, a near atonal rhythm brutally beats to match the movements of the steamboat wheel. It's incredible, really... a perfect complement to this impressive visual work.