CRITIQUED: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

There’s a certain kind of discomfort that accompanies Steve McQueen’s films. Exploring the human rights of jailed ideologists in Hunger was his debut endeavor into cinema that earned him international acclaim. The specter of sexual depravity and family dynamic is scrutinized in great detail with his second feature film Shame, a film that many folks haven’t seen, but should. Now everyone will be forced to take notice of McQueen’s directing prowess with 12 Years a Slave, a brutally honest adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. To take already uncomfortable subject material and make it that much more uncomfortable to watch takes sheer guts and an arresting conviction of talent, and McQueen achieves this in spades.

Helping McQueen to reach this level of discomfort is a cadre of equally talented individuals. Leading the way is Chiwetel Ejiofor, portraying the captive freed man Northrup, and delivers a harrowing performance, exhibiting a broad range of emotions and solidifies his already impressive resume as a leading man (for those who have not seen Redbelt, you’ll not understand that last statement). Joining Ejiofor is a McQueen staple in Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, the cotton field plantation owner and prototypical slave master who runs a tight ship and spares no rod at the sign of disrespect. At his side is the ignominious Mistress Epps, played with surprising—here’s that word again—discomfort by Sarah Paulson. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Rounding out the bit players in the picture are Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard and a pivotal cameo from Brad Pitt, who also served as executive producer.

Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave
Lupita Nyong’o is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, but did she ever make an impression. Her portrayal of the headstrong and defiant Patsey is another reason 12 Years a Slave is so impactful. The character undergoes tremendous physical and emotional turmoil that reverberates throughout the film, but it’s her sheer presence on-screen that earns her an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role. There is one scene in particular that we feel earned her this nod, and it is not undeserved, but we also feel Paulson should have received similar acclaim for her performance, because it was so against type (not counting her stint on American Horror Story) and it drove the very impressive performance of Nyong’o to achieve the level it had.
But let’s pause for a bit and talk about how this film looks and feels. Steve McQueen shoots beautiful pictures, as evidenced by his two previous features and his many short films. His signature movement, however, has a particularly added effect with Slave. McQueen tends to linger on some of his shots at pivotal moments in his films. These holds usually force the viewer to ask certain questions about what they’re seeing and pontificate what’s coming next. This is where McQueen makes his bones. What you expect to see next rarely ever happens. Now, we won’t be giving the particular scene away in Slave where McQueen utilizes this device, but what we can tell you is that it forces that discomfort and introspection as it relates to the film. And what your reaction to it will be dictates your feeling overall to how you watch the remainder of the film. Few directors have this ability, and McQueen has perfected it to the point where his Oscar nomination as Best Director is not only deserved, but should almost be expected on a yearly basis.
Along with McQueen, Nyong’o, Ejiofor, Fassbender and the film itself nominated for Academy Awards this year, 12 Years a Slave adds four more nods on the night, including Costume Design (Patricia Norris – The Elephant ManScarface) and Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley – Red TailsThree KingsUndercover Brother). These two awards could go the film’s way, but we won’t be surprised if Nyong’o captures the golden statue for Supporting Actress as the upset of the night.
Michael Fassbender, Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave will be available on Blu-ray and DVD the Tuesday after the Oscars, March 4.

UPDATE: Of the nine categories 12 Years a Slave was nominated for, the film took home three, including the final award of the evening, Best Picture. Lupita Nyong’o received the first Oscar of the telecast, winning for Best Supporting Actress, and scribe John Ridley received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. hapless geek’s 2014 Oscar Wrap-Up covers this film and many more and can be found here.

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