Sunday, January 22, 2017

Decade of Best Pictures: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Welcome back to the first DECADE OF BEST PICTURES series of reviews where we will be taking a look at a decade of Best Picture winners over the course of 10 days. In this series we will be looking at the decade of Best Pictures from 2005-2015 in reverse chronological order! This third entry will be for the 2013 Best Picture winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE!

12 Years a Slave is the 2013 Best Picture winner and masterpiece from director Steve McQueen. This tells the horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a New York-born free African American during the period of slavery who was tricked and kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years before eventually escaping and being released. This film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard.

This is a tough movie to watch but I have no other word to describe this than “masterpiece.” It truly is. Much like what Schindler’s List did for holocaust stories, 12 Years a Slave unflinchingly shows the horror of slavery in the American south. Every moment that Solomon is trapped in this world is horrifying and kind of unfathomable. Even starting with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character who, in the grand scheme of slavers, is not the worst but as the movie observes correctly, he still is a slaver. But then, it all turns when Solomon is sold to Michael Fassbender’s character who is a slave breaker and someone that we see as truly pure evil. In this situation the horrors of this system are ever more apparent in the most grim and effective ways possible.

McQueen’s directorial strength of this film was to move slowly through scenes and linger on things that are uncomfortable to really make the audience empathize with the characters in this awful situation and begin to appreciate how truly horrifying the whole situation is. Everything is gorgeously shot, perfectly contrasting the prim and properness of the Antebellum South with the grime of life as a slave. The ability to do that requires a level of vision and attention that very few filmmakers possess and I think McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt found that balance absolutely perfectly.

A major highlight that makes this film work are the performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant as Solomon Northup. He has this naivety about the situation, particularly at the beginning, and you see him go on this tragic journey over the course of the film that makes the impact of the situation all that more effective. Lupita Nyong’o also had this film as breakout role. She is brilliant in this movie and the film’s most difficult scene involves her right at its center and she is simply perfect. Finally, the actors playing the slavers, particularly Cumberbatch, Dano, and Fassbender, are unflinching and perfect. They all come off just right in these roles and make their characters genuinely unforgiveable at the end of the day which is absolutely what the film required of it.

I have almost zero problems with this film. The only, tiny point of contention I have with this film is the use of Brad Pitt in his role. He plays the good white guy who sees slavery as wrong and makes a point of it (and, of course, ends up helping our protagonist). With such an identifiable actor (who I also knew produced this film) in this kind of role takes me out of the film ever so slightly as I see a powerful actor putting himself in a role to make him look really great. At the end of the day, this doesn’t matter and doesn’t make this film any less brilliant overall.

12 Years of Slave is an excellent film. It perfectly shows something horrifying that people really need to see to get a deeper understanding of why it was so horrible. Theory is nice (and important), but the reality is so much more striking and McQueen brought us to this reality in a brilliant way and made a film that will live on throughout the ages.

Ryan’s Score: 9.5/10

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