There have been a good number of films based on slavery, or the era of it, however there has never been a definitive film made that captures slavery as it was, and with 12 Years a Slave, that has now changed. The tale, based off the autobiography written by Solomon Northup, of this film rings utterly powerful and captures the heart and soul of the viewers through this Shakespearian-esque tragedy.
The opening scene, while I will not spoil it for you, grabs you attention and then never lets it go, it sends a foreboding chill down your spine and lets you know exactly what type of film you'll be watching. The film puts you into the scene with Northup, as if you were observing the actual events of the plantation, there is no fun thrill that is provided through (a great) film like Django, it gritty and utterly realistic, it leaves no truth uncovered and shows you more than you would want to see, but exactly what you need to see.
First, let me give my praise to the actors of this film, the performances are captured perfectly, they captivate you, and are not overdone (like many Oscar hopeful actors tend to do). Ejiofer commands the screen, giving the beating heart to the film, he creates a connection in that you can almost relate to him so you have even more sympathy toward him, it's not just the things he had to go through but that before he was a man who was free like the viewers of the film, it makes you grateful you live when and where you do, despite your current conditions.
While, Ejiofer was undoubtedly the strongest performance given, that is not to take away from the phenomenal work done by Fassbender and N'yongo, who had much more complicated roles. Fassbender doesn't just play the southern stereotype of a harsh slave owner, but he owns their actual mindset, he delves into the psyche of the man, and shows how there is a corrupting power in slavery that not only effected the slaves, but it effected the man in power. By demeaning a human being to such status it was a way to raise one's ego into authority, it made the power a type of lust, having and using such authority corrupted even the most sympathetic into the vilest form.
N'yongo, on the other hand, breaks your heart, her performance is what put me to tears and what drives the true theme of this film. 12 Years a Slave, is not just a film depicting the horror of slavery, but how in such vile conditions that there is a fall into despair (as Ejiofer said in the trailer and film, "How could you fall into such despair?") because of the loss of hope, hope is the driving force behind human survival, and even the smallest ounce of it will push the determination to live, and when it's lost you become nothing more than a beating corpse waiting for death to take you. All three of these actors deserve not only the nomination for their performances but the win, they conveyed something so real, powerful, moving, and were the heart and soul of the film.
Now, just because I have such high praise for those three actors (I devoted a paragraph to each one individually), it does not mean that any of the technical or writing aspects were weak, it is completely opposite of the fact. While, I have no actually read the book written by Solomon Northup, I can tell from the film's writing that the adaption was brilliant. The way it put you into the shoes of Northup is not only credit to the director, but major credit to the author of the book written over a hundred years ago, this isn't just a story created to display slavery, it was written by the man who experience everything in this movie, it is no legend, the movie displays the closest thing to a first-hand account that you'll ever see on screen.
The cinematography of the film just further exemplifies the power of the film and its capabilities to put you on the plantation as an observer, so many shots are so incredibly beautiful, it places you into the environment. It makes the setting not only a setting, but an actual character to the piece, the environment is a living obstacle, yet a gorgeous (and tortuous) view at the same time. It almost reminds me of a quote by Charles Dickens from, A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of time and it was the worst of times," now there was certainly nothing good about this, but the film (and visuals) shows how tragedy brings out the worst and best in humanity. You see the worst in vile scum of Fassbender's character, and yet also a beauty in the determination (and sympathy) of characters portrayed by Pitt or Ejiofer. You see a paralleled loss of hope from N'yongo and sense of determination, to fight the evil, out of Northup, and the visuals exemplify this in the broadest sense.
Hans Zimmer is an extraordinary aid to the technical department in his enchanting score, I was originally at doubt that Mr. Zimmer could pull off a double nomination in the Original Score department with Rush and 12 Years a Slave, but this showed me that it is possible. The score is used so sparingly, that when it lifts up the film when it plays, and prolongs the dreadful scenes in silence. There are points where you are almost begging in your mind for the main theme to come back because of how brutal points of it get. It works so well in aiding the film, although if I have to give the movie a weak point, this or the film editing is probably the weakest part (yet both are still so strong).
Lastly, I must mention McQueen because he is what pulls all of these elements together, his directorial touch is so delicate and masterful, and it is an explanation for why everything in the film works as intended. It is McQueen who molds everything together and shapes the masterpiece, he is the one who takes all of these powerful elements and turns them into one grand image.
Overall, 12 Years a Slave isn't a film about slavery, it is THE film about slavery. It captures the scene, puts you in it, and then makes you feel like no other film about slavery has gotten close to accomplishing. It is an extraordinary achievement that may just end up being the masterpiece of this decade.
10/10 Sticks of Bamboo