12 Years a Slave – Harrowing
It’s been nearly a year since the release, and our review, of “Django Unchained,” the Quentin Tarantino blood-soaked revenge story where white slavers finally got their comeuppance. It was a thing of beauty to see history re-written, once again by Tarantino, and evil punished as it should be. A year later, another high-profile film using the topic of slavery as it’s narrative is released in the form of “12 Years a Slave.” Directed by Steve McQueen, who you probably know from “Shame,” starring Michael Fassbender’s wiener, is a harrowing story that I’ll define as the “anti-Django.”
“Slave,” based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, tells of the story of Northup’s journey from a free black man in upstate New York, to his kidnapping and eventual sale into slavery in the American South. The tale is brutal, gritty, and all together horrifying. Northup sees things that no human being should ever see and his will is constantly tested by not only his masters, but his fellow slaves, namely a woman named Patsey, while the two are indentured by Edwin Epps, a slaver that would make Calvin Candie blush.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, and sells the pain and anguish of a man struggling with protecting his pre-slavery life, while trying to survive the mental and physical abuse of his new masters. Not to sell the film short by any means, but “Slave” is a classic fish out of water story. However, if you’re waiting for any comic beats or scenes that will lighten the mood, you’ll be sadly mistaken. Ejiofor is a marvel and creates something that is tragic, and beautiful. He brings to life a character that was far too common in antebellum America, and where only a few were actually saved from their predicament.
The other surprising bit about “Slave” is its star power. A who’s who of Hollywood shows up in every corner of the film. From Benedict Cumberbatch to Paul Dano (who nearly steals the show as a deranged junior overseer) it was a little shocking to see so many stars in one film about a subject as touchy as slavery. While I mention this fact, I still have a hard time not comparing “Slave” to “Django Unchained.” The two have many similarities. One being the grim subject of slavery and their harsh depictions of the white oppressors, but I find it so odd that so many Hollywood A-Listers want to be a part of a film that depicts such harsh subject matter. Sure, it shows that they are empathetic to the fact that slavery was wrong and appalling, but to me it seems so odd. I can’t quite put my finger on it.
On the subject of comparing “Slave” to “Django,” while I felt beats of “Django” had moments of levity to take you out of it’s grim subject matter, “Slave” is relentless in it’s overall message. Near the end I had a pit in my stomach like I had while watching “The Passion of the Christ.” It felt like a hopeless situation that would never give in, and while you know the endgame for “Christ” you still felt some hope for Northup and his situation, but near the end, you felt just as hopeless as Northup. To be honest, the last 30 minutes of “Slave” is an emotional rollercoster that I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s the most emotional film that you might see the entire year.
McQueen’s direction, and especially what he gets out of Fassbender, is a wonder to behold. Like I said before, if you thought Leonardo DiCaprio was Academy Award-worthy in “Django,” wait until you see Fassbender. It’s one of the best performances in a film filled with haunting and memorable performances, and Fassbender’s is one of the best you’ll see all year. His portrayal of Edwin Epps is utterly evil and depicts everything that was horrible about the act of slavery. Getting back to McQueen, his depictions of the horrors of slavery are visceral and drawn out, and add to the tension of Northup’s plight and hopelessness.
The only thing that really rubs me the wrong way about “Slave” is the attention, or the attention it’s not getting. Yes, the film is great, and I say that from purely a narrative and filmmaking perspective, but what “Django” was ripped apart by certain directors, the fact that “Slave” was directed by an African American director, nobody says anything about it. It’s just something that I notice and it kind of bugs me. Within the past 15 years three major films have been released on the subject of slavery; “Amistad,” “Django Unchained,” and now “12 Years a Slave.” Two of the films were directed by white directors and the latest directed by an African American. Just something to think about in the way that the media covers certain films.
In conclusion, “Slave” is a film that will stay with you long after the credits role and will hopefully encourage people to seek out the truth about this story and so many stories like it, not only from antebellum America, but what likely still goes on all over the world everyday. While Tarantino put a spin on slavery with “Django” that was horrible, but still added some humor, “Slave” is an earnest tale of finding hope when all is lost and is going to be a major contender when Oscar nominations are announced.
“Fun” Fact: This is Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s third collaboration together, starting with “Hunger” in 2008.