By Ohad Amram Columnist
Director Steve McQueen’s third feature film is an accomplishment that any filmmaker, contemporary or not, would love to make. Within the last five years, McQueen has established himself among the best contemporary filmmakers.
In 2008 he swept awards internationally with his debut feature, “Hunger,” and in 2011 with his sophomore effort, “Shame.” His vision is relevant, historically important, and a visual spectacle to be adored and both films demand to be seen.
But most of all, they gave notice to McQueen as a true visionary. If nothing else, both his previous films proved that McQueen and Fassbender are undeniably the dynamic duo.
Arguably McQueen’s most ambitious film, “12 Years a Slave,” is a gut-wrenching portrayal of slavery in the 1800s. The sobering film is based on true events of the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetal Ejiofor), a free man kidnapped from New York and brought to New Orleans and sold into slavery.
The film portrays a life enslaved and a man’s identity in chains. It’s not for the weak of heart. “12 Years a Slave” paralyzes its audience, and though the viewer may want to look away, simultaneously the beautiful cinematography and captivating storyline make it impossible.
“12 Years a Slave” has left quite the impression on critics and festivals since it’s limited release shortly after premiering at the Telluride Film Festival. Thereafter it played at both the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York International Film Festival.
It should come as no surprise that the film was incredibly well received. What distinguishes “12 Years a Slave” from every other film about slavery is the sheer intimacy we experience as the viewer living vicariously through the protagonist.
After Northup has been drugged and kidnapped under the guise of a job offer, he does everything in his power to “not only survive, but to live.”
He finds himself in the hands of a variety of slave owners over the course of a dozen years. Few men spare Northup, most dictate his life mercilessly.
Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps (Fassbender), embody the two types of owners, merciful and merciless. A juxtaposition is made between good and evil, or rather moderately tolerable given the circumstance, and evil.
The depiction between the characters gives intriguing insight to the unfathomable hardships and circumstances that plagued the slaves working the plantations in the south during this era.
Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano also exhibit the sheer terror and immorality mankind is capable of. They assist the slave masters in their governing of the slaves and their performances in the film are nothing short of brilliant.
Ejiofor and Fassbender will undoubtedly receive Oscar nominations for best lead and supporting actor, if they don’t win.
That said, McQueen might very well take home best director, and as it looks, the film could very well take best picture too.
The only quarrel one may have with “12 Years a Slave” is the plot points of the film, which revolve around torture. Rather than plot points that move the narrative forward, the film moves from one torture scene to the next in with slaves beaten and hanged regularly.
It’s due to these very elements that “12 Years a Slave” is a landmark film about slavery.
Skin is broken on torn backs. The slaves sing woeful songs. But the incomprehensible suffering and torment of the slaves is most deeply felt in the hauntingly beautiful yet unbearable long takes of silence.