12 Years a Slave is a movie that's hard to watch, but it's one you would never regret seeing. Steve McQueen directs Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man who lives in New York in 1841 with his family. As a prosperous violinist, Solomon lives blissfully apart from the slavery being practiced in the South, until he is tricked, drugged, and sold into slavery, where he remains for over a decade. He's forced to keep his identity a secret (revealing it only puts him in more danger) while being passed from one slave owner who's kind but not brave (Benedict Cumberbatch) to another, who's a terrible hybrid of religiously fanatical and sadistic (Michael Fassbender). Solomon's harrowing and remarkable story is a true one (the film is based on Northup's memoir), and while there is so much darkness in this slice of American history, the film is a triumph.
We've seen many narrative films made about slavery in the pre-Civil War South (Django Unchained came close to parodying it last year), but 12 Years a Slave stands apart. McQueen gives us Solomon's journey through his eyes, including the unbearable moments, of which there are many, and the highs, of which there are few. It makes for a powerful emotional experience that shouldn't be missed. Find out other reasons why 12 Years a Slave is so good after the jump.
Though he shares the screen with many big names like Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, Ejiofor deserves the full spotlight. It's McQueen's choice to tell the story through Solomon's eyes, but it's Ejiofor who makes it so affecting. His eyes alone communicate his immense pain, and in other moments, his desperation and his anger. It's a career-making performance, and one that will be talked about for a long time to come.
Fassbender also gives an unforgettable performance as Edwin Epps, one of the worst slave owners seen on film. He's unfeeling, cruel, doesn't think of his slaves as human, and worse, he always thinks he's in the right. Fassbender translates his complete lack of humanity so well, but what's truly chilling is that Epps's kind was probably not uncommon.
McQueen doesn't skimp on showing the violence of the time, but he doesn't exploit it, either. Scenes where Solomon is whipped or choked are awful to watch, but they become effective in communicating his and his fellow slaves' suffering. These scenes are visceral, sometimes appalling, but they feel necessary.
I know 12 Years a Slave sounds like a dismal watch, but it's more than just an important story; it's an extraordinary story. And despite the largely tragic subject matter, it doesn't leave you feeling depressed, because it's also a subtle celebration of the human spirit. Ultimately, it lifts you up.